Chicago Theatre Review
Magic, Clowns, and a Fiery Tragedy for Christmas
The Ruffians present Burning Blue Beard
When you see Burning Blue Beard at Theatre Wit, you’ll notice it is more like entering an amusement park ride than seeing a play. The Ruffians, who present the play, do a wonderful job of creating an environment for the audience to exist in as part of the story. Every moving part of the production adds to the whole, including you as the observer.
Burning Blue Beard is a play about a play….about a play. The show presents an absurdist retelling of how the Iroquois Theatre burned down in Chicago in 1903 during a showing of Mr. Bluebeard, a Christmas Pantomime. Much of the detail from the play is straight from history as the true events provide plenty of emotional fuel to motivate the characters on stage. The players and ghosts from that terrible night in 1903 on Randolph Street can’t help but keep trying to get it right, but every time the show seems to end in flames. Perhaps during the performance you see of Burning Blue Beard the ending will be a happy one. Hope is a big part of this tale.
The Neo-Futurists originally staged this production in 2011, and contrary to appearances, it is a whimsical holiday story. This whole play fits together like a puzzle box, a very quirky perfect puzzle box. The performers mix slapstick, macabre and satirical comedy with heartrending dramatic moments. The whole production is underscored with a range of wonderful music from formidable cinematic opening scores to Nordic techno, and uplifting modern pop ballads. This sound track, designed by Mike Tutaj, really enhances all of the emotion of the play, just as we are so used to experiencing in most films. The lighting also needs a special mention, as it did wonders to set the tone of a moment or abruptly pull the audience out of the drama into the comedy. And a set of incandescent, naked bulbs hanging over the audience creates the feeling of being part of a fairytale.
The entire cast does a wonderful job of balancing the touching moments with the funny and the slightly frightening. The group truly works together as an ensemble, literally holding each other up in some of the more acrobatic clowning scenes. One of the performers that really stands out is Dean Evans, who plays the Pierrot pantomime figure, dressed in white, loose garments and a pointed hat. As the most recognizable classic character type in the production, it is interesting that Evans’ character counters the traditions of this figure as a heartfelt lover and naïve young man. In Burning Blue Beard, Evans is very clever, much more than the rest of the characters, and seems to have a bit of a nefarious element. Evans plays this part in a very sly way, certainly luring the audience in with is charm but setting us off balance with the occasional dark jest. Another actor that stands out is Jay Torrence, not because his performance is any stronger than the rest, but because he is also the playwright. Jay Torrance plays the part of the stage manager who tried to put out the fire during the original performance. He also acts as a sort of narrator of the entire process, though a very subtle one.
There were a couple elements that felt a little out of place, despite this play’s skillful use of an eclectic collection of artistic inspirations. There were one or two modern dance numbers that felt a little too much like jumping on the store-front-theatre interpretive dance bandwagon that seems to be so popular with young companies. However, the lip sinking was exactly as out of place as it needed to be, so that’s not something that detracted from the overall production for me. You’ll understand what I mean when you see it.
Now, if you’ve noticed, I’ve been commenting like you, the reader, will naturally go see this play. You could probably even take your kids to it, but I would recommend an older age range, as there are some dark themes present. Burning Blue Beard is worth taking a trip over to Theatre Wit because it is a very innovative and unique play, and just a well-told story. This play mixes a lot of theatre, movie, and musical conventions from many artistic movements in the last century. The production has lots of fun toying around with these elements and techniques, which leads to the last reason to see this play. It is so much fun. Everything about this play, from the moment of entering a smoke filled theatre to the curtain call, is really a delight to be a part of. Burning Blue Beard presented by the Ruffians is simply a holiday theatre experience not to be missed. You could even say it’s to die for.
Reviewed by Clare Kosinski
Burning Blue Beard presented by The Ruffians
Playing November 21 – January 5 at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773.975.8150 or by visiting www.theatrewit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions may be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.