At some point during “Burning Bluebeard,” originally produced by The Ruffians and presented this year by Porchlight Music Theatre, I was removed from myself and from my usual stances as a critic and became obsessed with a dress burning like paper and a body reeling and roiling, with bodies melting into each other and smoke rolling forward in a single tidal wave. People are shouting and crying. Panic engulfs the darkness while a fairy lamp defends itself alone onstage.
Sometimes, when a show resonates, trying to describe it or how it does what it does feels like breaking its bones: the experience, so elegantly manifested, becomes subsumed by the words and then crammed into a trunk for digestible recommendation. It’s easier sometimes, but in this instance, words fail me.
“Burning Bluebeard” represents the cumulative potential of theater as an art form: a poetic, terrifying, gut-buster tour de force that tells the audience exactly what this show is going to be—a deconstructed retelling of the 1903 Iroquois Theatre Fire from the eyes of the artists who worked on “Mr. Bluebeard,” the production that sent the theater up in flames—even while building the sense that this time fate may be averted and we might see the second act and the victims of that fire could be saved. All the while, director Halena Kays, playwright Jay Torrence, the cast and the crew quietly build a huge foundation of material, character and images before the show speaks its name again and turns everything to ash.
The cast of six clowns, spirits, tricksters (not in that order: Pamela Chermansky, Anthony Courser, Crosby Sandoval, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski, Ryan Walters) piece together and break apart the show with equal parts delight and heartbreak. Walters’ Eddie Foy doesn’t want to tell the story because of his devastating participation; Pamela Chermansky’s melodramatic (cruel) Fancy Clown says they’ll make it to the second act, past the fire this time, because the show must go on. After all, the second act’s her favorite.
It’s a devastating tug-and-pull, a love letter and a eulogy to enthrallers the world over. When all you want is to thicken the air of a room until imagination meets raw reality and becomes invocation, you forget responsibility lies in the world. It is a story of failure. It is a testament to both the power of art and its fundamental weakness: art cannot change the past. Art is not a bucket of water in a burning theater. We go to it in times of need. We still have some deep hunger to channel and create it, even when it doesn’t make any sense (there are some non sequiturs in this show that are so, so, so funny, they feel like slaps to the face).
Words still fail me. I have used so many, but to describe the effect of the deep-seated possession of space and bodies, of the trust built between audience and ensemble, would require me to break the bones of “Burning Bluebeard” and write something as beautiful, as totally enthralling and transformative, as the show itself.
That would be a feat. It would be easier for both of us if you just go see it. (Persephone Jones)
The Ruffians, presented by Porchlight Music Theatre, 1016 North Dearborn, (773)777-9884, porchlightmusictheatre.org, $45. Through December 27.