Chicago Theatre Review
Singed Clowns Waiting in the Wings
Burning Bluebeard – The Ruffians
Audiences flocking to the theatre these days seldom give thought to their personal safety. Even back at the turn of the century, only 30 years after Chicago went up in smoke, there was little cause for alarm…that is until Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre, billed as “absolutely fireproof,” caught fire during an oversold matinee, on December 30, 1903. Who could’ve imagined that a holiday pantomime entitled “Mr. Bluebeard” would result in one of the most tragic losses of life in American history. It’s estimated that over 600 innocent people, most of them children and their mothers, died as a result of the unstoppable blaze when an arc light shorted and the sparks ignited one of the muslin backdrops. An additional 250 members of the audience and the production were injured, as well. This tragedy gave rise to more stringent fire safety rules, particularly for buildings in which large crowds gathered. Exits are now clearly marked, a panic bar is located on emergency escapes, doors now open out in the direction of departure and an asbestos fire curtain and other fireproof scenery and construction materials are now a part of high-occupancy spaces.
The Ruffians employed the burlesque, English pantomime style of “Mr. Bluebeard” to tell this horrific story of the Chicago tragedy. This excellent remount of Jay Torrence’s critically acclaimed 2011 comic drama, directed by Halena Kays, runs for only three weeks, and marks the 111th anniversary of the actual catastrophe. Featuring most of the original cast members (Anthony Courser, Molly Plunk, Leah Urzendowski, Ryan Walters and playwright, Jay Torrence), they are joined this year by the excellent Pam Chermansky, as the Fancy Clown and the show’s interlocutor. The production is haunting, unexpectedly funny at times and yet sends chills down the playgoer’s spine. It’s this company’s unique combination of artistry that makes this production so exciting.
When the audience enters the darkened, smoke-filled space, which represents an abridged version of the Iroquois Theatre stage following the fire, there’s clutter and debris lying everywhere. As the play begins, what at first appears to be the remains of scenery lying on the stage become body bags, from which emerge the actors. It’s a frightening sight and appropriately sets the tone for the 100-minute story that soon unfolds. Embedded within the program given to theatergoers is a visual depiction of The Legend of Bluebeard, presented ironically as a coloring book for children to enjoy; it succinctly provides audiences with enough background information for them to enjoy the play-within-the-play. Technically, this production owes much to the creativity and craftsmanship of one of Chicago’s unseen geniuses, Mike Tutaj. His masterful sound design, assisted by Mikey Moran, is a moody palette of music and sound that colors and drives this play. Dan Broberg and Joe Schermoly’s dingy scenic design visually extends the horror and humor of the play, supported by Maggie Fullilove-Nugent’s atmospheric lighting. Lizzie Bracken’s scorched, turn-of-the-century pierrot and punchinello costumes complete the vision.
The cast is wonderful. They continuously work together capturing the play’s macabre tone as they both narrate and recreate the theatrical tragedy. Conjuring the ghosts and reliving the incidents of that day creates an immediacy and evokes untold empathy from the audience for all those involved in this unspeakable horror. Pam Chermansky’s Fancy Clown bullies her way as the leader of the proceedings. She’s a dominant presence and forces her way through the performance with her private narration, personal opinions and an sarcastic air. Lovely Molly Plunk is a graceful, sweetly-mimed Faerie Queen. With her expressive face and imploring gesticulation, Ms. Plunk touches the audience with her subtle, caring performance. Leah Urzendowski plays birdlike aerialist Nellie Reed, one of only five actors to die in the fire, suspended high above the stage while awaiting her entrance on a high wire. Ms. Urzendowski is also responsible for choreographing the production’s opening dance number. The earnest helplessness behind her performance makes her tragic demise all the more poignant.
Ryan Walters‘ stirring performance brings life to Eddie Foy. As the actor whose comedic skills were showcased as Sister Anne in “Mr. Bluebeard,” Foy recounts noticing the fire, running onto the stage that afternoon and seeing more women and children in attendance than ever before. He first made certain that his own son was safe in the care of a stagehand; then he attempted to calm the crowd, even as large chunks of the ceiling were falling around them. Foy’s credited with saving many innocent lives that day and Mr. Walters offers the right amount of undaunted fearlessness in the role. Jay Torrence is heartbreaking and commanding as Robert Murray, a caring, sympathetic stagehand during that fateful performance. His attempt to lower the fire curtain was unsuccessful and the fatherly care he provides his cast and the audience during that terrible tragedy is inspiring. As Henry Gilfoil and Dan McAvoy, the actor who played Bluebeard, Anthony Courser does quite well with the physical demands of his role, but is not as accomplished verbally. His line delivery and enunciation is less polished than his cast mates, although he creates a most likable character.
The Ruffians‘ quirky combination of process and showmanship is partially inspired by Australia’s Theatre in Decay. It includes bouffant clowning, a bit of puppetry and various Brechtian techniques. The company also borrows its style from Jerzy Grotowski’s “poor theatre,” which values the actor’s body and its relationship with the spectator. The result is a unique experience that has come be associated with Chicago. It all works well for this production, directed with fierce showmanship by Halana Kays, and supported by a team of magical artists. The actors in this year’s remount are terrific and work together to make this must-see production, and this historical tragedy, very difficult to forget.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 13-January 4 by the Ruffians at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Theater Wit box office, by calling 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions may be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.