Burning Bluebeard Review - A Dark Comedic Take on The Iroquois Theater Fire

Leah Urzendowski, Anthony Courser, Jay Torrence, Pam Chermansky and Ryan Walters

For those tired of the usual holiday offerings, The Hypocrites present The Ruffians not so uplifting but perfectly executed dark comedy Burning Bluebeard.  The play begins in the still smoldering ruins of the once elegant Iroquois Theatre where six theater spirits hope to recreate the vaudeville accented Pantomime play, Mr. Bluebeard.  If they appear a bit nervous to be doing so, well, they should be.  The last time they staged this play (December 30, 1903) it was interrupted at the beginning of the second act by an epic fire that engulfed the entire theater and killed over six hundred audience members. Making this even more tragic was the large number of children in attendance who, along with their parents, had no chance of escaping a theater that had stairs leading to brick walls, an upper balcony separated from the theater exits by a wrought iron gate (to prevent people from the cheap seats moving closer to the stage at intermission), and incomplete fire escapes that dangled several stories above a Chicago alley.

Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski, Ryan Walters, Pam Chermansky, Anthony Courser and Molly Plunk

Written by Jay Torrence (who also plays the role of Robert Murry) and directed by Halena Kays, Burning Bluebeard incorporates many of the elements of a classic Pantomime including audience participation, familiar pop tunes, dance, and a bit of cross-dressing.  The cast members, all reunited from last year’s production, move across the stage with the grace of a tight rope walker.  The fun is in watching them delicately balance the tragic end waiting in the wings with the silly, half-baked plot of Mr. Bluebeard which may be the only children’s play featuring the gruesome murder of six wives.

Jay Torrence, Anthony Courser, Pam Chermansky, Molly Plunk, Leah Urzendowski and Ryan Walters

Onstage The Ruffians provide a smattering of circus acts but mostly rely on their acting chops to bring the material to life.  Pamela Chermansky as Fancy Clown impresses as the somewhat sinister, worldly performer who grasps the theatrical implications of the greater story.  Standout performances also include Leah Urzendowski (Nellie Reed)and Ryan Walters (Eddie Foy) who humanize what was lost by two of the original Mr. Bluebeard cast members.  And Anthony Courser as Henry Gilfoil (the actor portraying Mr. Bluebeard) projects the right amount of earnest intent which foreshadows the coming tragedy.

Jay Torrence, Anthony Courser, Leah Urzendowski, Ryan Walters and Molly Plunk

Another element of the Pantomime is a transformation scene where a faerie queen magically transports the characters to safety.  Ultimately this comes to pass, but at a horrible price for the remaining audience members.  While not shying away from this horror, Burning Bluebeard does allow one final, triumphant image that appears a testimony to the enduring hopes of the theater community and by extension ourselves.  In a world where guns and flames are far from extinguished, maybe this is what holiday theater should be about.

Leah Urzendowski, Jay Torrence, Anthony Courser, Pam Chermansky and Ryan Walters

Bottom line:  Burning Bluebeard is highly recommended but maybe not for children ten and under.  It can be viewed now through January 10th at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage (1329 North Milwaukee) for $36 (students $15 and groups of 8 or more $18).  Tickets are on sale at the-hypocrites.com.  For more information and reviews for this and other performances, go to theaterinchicago.com.

Pam Chermansky, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski, Ryan Walters and Anthony Courser

Photos by Evan Hanover 

 

  

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