Go for an important history lesson but stay for the art. This is brilliant offbeat storytelling at its best.
American culture seems ever short on long-term memory. By the time Michael Jordan’s name was known worldwide as a sports legend that of Seabiscuit was just about forgotten.
However short our memories for all things fun, those for events we’d rather forget seem all the shorter. A year+ ago when workers locked in a factory in Bangladesh died in a fire it was eerily reminiscent of the Triangle Fire incident, an event almost forgotten in popular memory had it not been for valiant efforts to honor its centennial anniversary in the prior year.
That’s one reason why The Ruffians’ “Burning Bluebeard” is so important. Go for the needed reminder of a senseless fire in a downtown Chicago theater that claimed 600 lives, mainly children, but also helped make sensible USA fire regulations common.
The artful re-telling of this tale ensures you will never forget the Iroquois Theater fire, if you knew of it before.
Emerging from the ashes of the fire, we meet the stage manager and several cast members of the Bluebeard pantomime playing in the theater that day along with Vaudevillian side acts that were meant to fill the time. They are singed and flinch at even the smallest flame, but yet are drawn to it and their passion to tell the tale.
In the Shakespearean tradition of a story within a story, this small highly skilled ensemble (Anthony Courser, Dean Evans, Molly Plunk, playwright/performer Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski Courser, and Ryan Walters) take us back and forth looking at the fire though a present day lens and then back to the moment of when it occurred. At times with Swedish techno music, hip-hop dance moves, or choice lines from a clown reminding us that 1903 was a time when references to “Dirty Brown Devils” in the Middle East were the norm, they evoke that historic moment when fast-growing Chicago had just surpassed Philadelphia as “The Second City”.
It was a pre-Christmas performance, and the troupe both distributes gifts to the audience and then takes them back to unwrap them, each a tale totem that prompts an unraveling of the next part of the story.
They help us feel the silliness of the pantomime performance that day and how it underlines the senselessness of the tragedy. The imaginative touches of this production under the direction of Halena Kays are inspired. For example, our fairy queen who is to save the day in the pantomime is all glitter but also chomping on popcorn.
We’re going along in this back and forth point of view from present day to then when the Eddie Foy character (Ryan Walters), a vaudevillian who starred in that day’s performance, seems to flip the switch to full frontal tragedy as his eyes tear. We hear the sounds of balconies crumbling and screams. We, the audience, become THAT audience trapped in the flames. All the more-than-able clowning of this cast is pushed aside so that the details of the raging fire can grab center stage.
You will be moved.
There is a special performance of this play at 3 PM, the time of the original fire, on December 30, marking its 110th Anniversary, and a second one that evening.
The regular run is Thursday – Sundays from now until January 5, 2014.
It is playing at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont, in Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Theater Wit box office online or by calling 773 975 8150.
Photos: Evan Hanover