Grappling with the horrific history of Iroquois Theatre fire

THEATER REVIEW: "Burning Bluebeard" at Theater Wit ★★★½

 Anthony Courser, Jay Torrence, Dean Evans, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Ryan Walters and Molly Plunk in "Burning Bluebeard."

Anthony Courser, Jay Torrence, Dean Evans, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Ryan Walters and Molly Plunk in "Burning Bluebeard." (Evan Hanover / November 25, 2011)

On Dec. 30, 1903, Chicago's Iroquois Theatre, located on Randolph Street between State and Dearborn streets, was destroyed by fire, killing some 600 people, many of them young children seated in a balcony filled with Chicagoans who had come into the Loop to see a Christmas matinee. The death toll was a result of many mistakes — overcrowding, locked gates blocking exits, heavy curtains instead of exit signs, doors that opened in, not out, a fire curtain that jammed on the way down — but one might reasonably characterize all that went wrong as a consequence of a city that was just growing too quickly for its own good.

This was a major event in the history of Chicago — perhaps the first civic pause for self-reflection since the Great Fire of 1871 or the 1886 Haymarket Riot. All those deaths (the entire newsroom of this newspaper worked all night, that terrible night, to secure each and every name for the following morning's edition) at least produced some meaningful reforms in fire codes throughout the nation.

That fire made headline news around the world. The pantomime, "Mr. Bluebeard," that all those children were watching has largely been forgotten. As remarked in Jay Torrence's dark Christmas show, "Burning Bluebeard," "the real show here was not the show at all. History knew that better than the playwright."

"Burning Bluebeard" is a quite remarkable seasonal production that takes some explaining (and, frankly, you have to be up for an emotionally complex journey).

The piece, which is self-aware and full of anachronisms, involves the company of actors from that particular production moving forward in time (to our time) to present scenes from their ill-fated, lousy show, now heavy with the weight of the deaths that occurred. Everyone involved is very much aware of how people lost their lives to see something that was cheap, shoddy and not much good. But this was their show, now trapped in time and forever tainted with death.

Although emotionally intense and weighty, the show is nonetheless highly theatrical, whimsical and often very funny. This was the first time I've seen "Burning Bluebeard," which now is ensconced at Theater Wit and doing sellout business; on Sunday afternoon, it played to an audience that did not move a muscle for 100 minutes. But this is not the first year for the show, which was first produced at The Neo-Futurarium in 2011. This second production, which features a greatly expanded set and various other changes and little developments, is staged under the name of a new company, The Ruffians, although the piece has the same director (Halena Kays), cast and design team from 2011.

It's clear that everyone here has been working on this project for a long time. The staging is detailed and generally superb, filling the intimate space at Theater Wit with a creepy vaudeville troupe, playing and replaying the nightmare of their lives. Much of the acting is similarly remarkable, especially the loquacious Dean Evans as a macabre whitefaced clown, and wide-eyed Ryan Walters, who plays Eddie Foy, the famous Chicago vaudevillian who was the star of the show in 1903. Walters really taps into the complexities of Foy: He was hailed as a hero by this newspaper and even became the hero of a Hollywood movie about the fire, but it was also Foy who told the children in the balcony to sit back down, and thus coaxed them to await their deaths, following the failure of the fire curtain. As Walters recounts this agony, in between the Foy shtick, you feel shivers. Truly.

The design work here is far and above what one normally finds off-Loop: Dan Broberg's set is not only gothic but emotionally resonant in all kinds of ways, and Mike Tutaj's suite of recorded sounds is so intense as to be very difficult to experience in places, especially when we get to the screams. But this is not all horrors. At one point, Leah Urzendowski Courser, playing an aerialist with a bird's-eye view of impending destruction, flies through the air, perhaps in a forlorn but strangely beautiful attempt to reclaim a moment from hell.

It took me awhile, frankly, to decide that the piece was paying enough homage to the very real people that died that day. Sure, the Iroquois disaster is the stuff of horror stories and the avant-garde, but these were children. And I think the one remaining flaw of this otherwise jaw-dropping piece is that we don't know enough about why this story is being told, and what emotional price the tellers are paying. Or, to put that another way, there is some lingering resistance to really drilling down to the core of artistic vulnerability.

But the performances here really are exceptional, and the entire show is gripping in its originality, intensity and boundary-crossing audacity. And although Kays and her actors are invested in the style of the piece, and its tawdriness, there is enough truth and compassion here that, by the end of the 100 minutes, it felt like a searingly honest treatment of how tragedies echo across time, fading away until they are brought back to life in another theater. With fire doors.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Jan. 5

Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Tickets: $25-$36 at 773-975-8150 or theaterwit.org

Featured Stories

Advertisement

PLAN AHEAD

Top Trending Videos