Equally funny and poignant, this is an unforgettable memorial
|The Ruffians presents|
Review by Clint May
Few memories of Chicago theatre stick out with as much clarity as walking out of the premiere of Burning Bluebeard—then at the Neo-Futurarium—in 2011. My companion was also a veteran of the scene, and both of us were in near mute silence at the lyrical beauty of the production we’d just witnessed. Within the space of just 90 minutes, we had alternately laughed and cried, and generally marveled at the skill and audacity it took to pull something like this off. Playwright Jay Torrence previously moved me with Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck, and Bluebeard contains many of the same hallmarks. A tragic conceit*, an ode to the act of creation, a focus on a forgotten tragedy and an exhilarating mingling of styles that shows little regard for standards of storytelling. In lesser hands, I’ve witnessed attempts like this lose their emotional core in favor of style. Not so with Torrence and this inspired troupe. In both, the style is subservient to the achingly beautiful story being told and, as good as Roustabout was, Bluebeard quickly rocketed up to my pantheon of all-time favorites. To see it returning two years later with the same cast and crew at the helm—well, it doesn’t get much better than this. Coming at you from oblique and disconcerting angles, Burning Bluebeard leaves an indelible mark.
In several ways, the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire that claimed 605 people would have been the Titanic of its day, if that disaster were not nine years in their future. Billed as “Absolutely Fireproof,” it in fact shunned many of the most basic of structural and procedural fire safety policies of its day. Even the fire curtain not only snagged but was later found to have been made of useless material. Hundreds of people, many of them women and children out for a day on Michigan Avenue, would perish due to this managerial hubris for which no one was punished. So many things went wrong it seemed scripted in retrospect. As one performer wryly notes, even if the theatre had been fireproof, the audience members were not.
Only one of the approximately 400** actors died, but their lives came at the expense of the audience. By opening the back doors, they allowed gusts of wind to create the backdraft that consumed the attendants. Here is where Torrence finds his tragic conceit. Led by survivor’s guilt, five performers and a stage manager return to the still-smoking rubble of the theatre. They have come to finish their simple ‘holiday’ pantomime of Mr. Bluebeard, a rather dark story obscenely embellished with circus and vaudevillian elements. Their intention is to give the the ghosts of the children who died that day the entertainment they came for—to finish what they started and perhaps exorcise not only the spirits who linger in the smoke but their own guilt as well. “We just want to make you happy,” they intone as a prayer for forgiveness against the horror. But can their Purgatory ever be truly purgative?
Thus begins their elegiac reenactment. The question that haunts them throughout is whether or not history must repeat itself and engulf us, the audience, again. Surely they are trapped in an echo of the theatre, and we have been pulled into their limbo. Still wearing their fire-singed costumes, they ceaselessly toil to remake history with a happier ending that the innocents on that tragic night deserved. Lead by Chicago’s own comedy king, Eddie Foy (Ryan Walters), the intrepid band summon the spirit of the Faerie Queen (Molly Plunk) to undo the unthinkable. Can aerialist Nellie Reed (Leah Urzendowski Courser) finally give her gift of flower petals dropped from on high? Can the Pagliacci-styled clown (Dean Evans) get the applause he knows he deserves? Will Henry Gilfoil (Anthony Courser) be able to play out the villainous Bluebeard to his deserved end? Behind the scenes, Robert Murray (Jay Torrence) wonders if he can ensure that the fatal spark of moonlight brings only a sense of wonder instead of doom. These questions must be answered not just to assuage their guilt, but to fulfill that oh-so-human need—the need to make sense of the senseless.
What surprises most is not just the poignancy of the device but the absolute shock that, against all odds, Bluebeard is frequently hilarious. How they manage to mine humor from this is a thing to be studied. With their foundation in clowning and classically zany vaudeville mixed with a modern-day meta-humor and improv, these are the kind of clowns one rarely sees; the kind that find a way to make you love them with their innocence and good humor. Their audacious physicality, expert timing and outright fearlessness warm us to them as they inexorably march towards the foreboding second act. There’s a flair for the non-sequitur here that’s indicative of their Neo-Futurist roots. The Queen Faerie is magical yet eats “sensible snacks” (i.e., potato chips) and speaks unintelligibly through a soup can she holds to her mouth. Musical mash-ups are pushed into the panto (Torrence lip syncing “Rehab” is bizarre on a whole new level). A danse macabre signals the approaching horror. Mason jars of light are handed to the audience—the performer’s souls, perhaps. It’s magical (sur)realism at its most empathetic.
The chemistry that director Halena Kays has marshalled to the service of this darkly comic tale is still as combustible as it was in its debut. It’s actually very difficult to imagine any other performers in these roles. Who else but Molly Plunk could play the gangly yet graceful Faerie? Is there another performer with Leah Urzendowski Courser’s unique brand of spritely athleticism? Anthony Courser is such a charmingly vulnerable performer; Evans’ clown such a unique creation of overblown bravado and despair. The show’s heart is worn on everyone’s sleeves, but is manifested most eloquently in Walters’ turn as Foy. Perhaps the most guilty of the survivors, Foy was a would-be hero whose theoretically good advice to stay calm and remain seated as the set burned around him proved fatal. He survived only to know that he was the last vision of hundreds of women and children who trusted him. Walters brings a genuine heart-in-your-throat quality as he recites the events as he saw them, his large eyes imploring sympathy for his ‘sin’.
After all the superlatives, it’s enough to say that this is not just great theatre, it’s the reason to go to theatre—to be transported, challenged, moved, enraptured. Bluebeard goes another level beyond even that. As a celebration of the power of art to make meaning from an indifferent universe, it connects you to this event and to the humanity of the people around you in the audience. “Will you remember me?” asks Nellie. How could we forget?
Burning Bluebeard continues through January 5th at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $18-$36, and are available by phone (773-975-8150) or online at TheaterWit.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at GoRuffians.org. (Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes without intermission)
Photos by Evan Hanover
*For Roustabout, the conceit was as simple as taking several of the unknown victims of the circus train wreck and giving them elaborate, nuanced backstories as recompense for their pathetically numbered gravestones.
behind the scenes
Halena Kays (director), Dan Broberg (scenic design), Lizzie Bracken (costume design), Mike Tutaj (sound design), Maggie Fullilove-Nugent (lighting design & production manager), Justine Palmisano (stage manager), Krista Mickelson (assistant stage manager), Evan Hanover (photos)