“You know how you go to most Christmas shows and you’re sitting there and they don’t catch you on fire?” one of the characters in “Burning Bluebeard” rhetorically asks the audience early on, before going on to explain how they ended up doing exactly the opposite during their show. Their show is “Mr. Bluebeard,” a spectacle-filled holiday pantomime performed at Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre in December of 1903. And the specific performance that’s being discussed is the infamously tragic matinee when the theater caught fire, killing more than 600 people, many of them children.
Originally produced two years ago by the Neo-Futurists at The Neo-Futurarium, this remounting at Theater Wit features the complete original cast, and is once again helmed by director Halena Kays. “Listen,” says Kays, “we wouldn’t come back and do this if this piece and this cast weren’t very special.” And it is indeed special. Written by Jay Torrence (who also performs in it), this semi-historical account features dance, acrobatics, clowning and a surprising amount of comedy.
Goofiness and irreverence abound; a jaunty song and dance number satirizes the lack of regulations and safety precautions in the theater, numerous puns are tossed about (“the hottest show in town”) and a “Smells Like Teen Spirit”/“The Final Countdown” mashup accompanies a dance number. But rather than stifling deeper emotions, this frequent light touch allows true poignancy to reach much farther into our hearts and minds than a straight-laced approach would. And even though we know (we know, we know!) throughout that tragedy is approaching, the comedic moments spread throughout the show slowly start to pull us into the same trap that the characters are operating under: maybe this time things will turn out differently.
“We theater people love our stories within our stories,” says the sometimes somber, sometimes bemused stage manager (Torrence). And the story within this story is that the performers from that doomed matinee performance are here before us, repeatedly reliving their roles in the “Mr. Bluebeard” tragedy in the hopes that they can finally get through the second act without the theater catching fire. They’re also working through the heavy burden of survivor’s guilt: of the more than six-hundred who died that afternoon, only one was a performer—the rest escaped through the rear exit. And the opening of that rear exit caused a backdraft which rapidly escalated the fire’s destructive force.
As this group of performers, clad in costume designer Lizzie Bracken’s perfectly ragged and somewhat soot-tinged costumes, works toward some type of closure on the events in question, tiny snippets of the “Bluebeard” story are played out on Dan Broberg’s intricately laid-out set (complete with plenty of singed boards). These pieces don’t necessarily add up to a whole, though, which is why the story of Bluebeard is broken down in the program for anyone unfamiliar with it.
It is before and after each of these scenes that we meet each of the performers as the person that they represent and get to see their true selves. Torrence is the aww-shucks stage manager. Molly Plunk is a playful and incredibly flexible faerie queen. Anthony Courser is a gentle lead actor (he plays the coarse and wicked Bluebeard). Ryan Walters yuks it up as Chicago comedian Eddie Foy. Leah Urzendowski Courser is an enthusiastic and ill-fated aerialist. And Dean Evans is a droll clown, providing many of the laughs but with a somewhat sinister underside. Kays has them all playing to their strengths throughout without distracting from the story at hand.
This production manages to walk an incredibly fine line between being a laugh-filled clown show and paying respects to those who lost their lives (or witnessed others losing their lives). Somehow it manages both and the result is a flat-out entertaining and memorable night of theater. Maggie Fullilove-Nugent’s lighting design and Mike Tutaj’s sound design mesh together seamlessly throughout the piece, amping up the laughs, the antics and, ultimately, the unimaginable horror of being trapped in a theater filled with roaring flames. The near-constant audience interaction creates a sense of camaraderie and makes the illusion of reliving the experience all the more tangible leading into those final, affecting moments. The hopeful coda feels almost extraneous but provides a nice sense of closure and uplift after reliving a tragic event. (Zach Freeman)
The Ruffians at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont, (773)975-8150. goruffians.org. $25-$36. Through January 5.