Review: Burning Bluebeard (The Ruffians)

The Ruffians present Burning Blubeard at Theatre Wit. (L-R) Molly Plunk, Pam Chermansky, Anthony Courser, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski, Ryan Walters. Photo courtesy of David Rosenberg Public Relations
The Ruffians present Burning Blubeard at Theatre Wit. (L-R) Molly Plunk, Pam Chermansky, Anthony Courser, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski, Ryan Walters. Photo courtesy of David Rosenberg Public Relations

Show: Burning Bluebeard

Company: The Ruffians

Venue: Theater Wit

Die Roll: 18

Burning Bluebeard is a beautiful fantasia  –  TREAT YOURSELF – GET THEE TO THEATER WIT AND SEE IT!!!

Go! Scoot!

Still here? Well, then, I’ll tell you a bit about Burning Bluebeard. 

It starts in the lobby. The Ruffians choose to allow access into the theatre all at once right before the show starts, which requires a bit of patience as things can get crowded; but trust me, breathe deep and get to know your neighbor. There is a careful design to every moment of the audience experience.

When they open the doors and you make it through, you’ll find yourself 100 years in the past. The Ruffians have transformed the theatre into an glorious, scorched version of the Iroquois Theater, which once stood where the Oriental theatre is today in the Loop. Designed by Dan Broberg, it’s at once beautiful and sad, and frames the style of the ensuing performance perfectly.

Once the actors emerge, they immediately set the tone. This is pure clowning at its finest – a complex mix of physical comedy, vaudeville and performance art that defies simple categorization. It is an immersive performance, and the actors have no use for the barrier of a fourth wall. They regularly engage audience members and by doing so, draw us into the dream with them.

The show is, in a sense, a memory poem. Six performers gather in the ruins of the Iroquois to attempt to finally complete their Christmas pantomime  Mr. Bluebeard. Their one goal is to reach the happy ending they had hoped to give their audience, but that was cut short by disaster. The actors approach their task with overwhelming joy  – they’re so in love with their audience, so excited to share their play that they burst into dance.

Tempering their enthusiasm, however, is the ever-present threat of the fire and its devastation.  Casting a sly pall over the rest of her companions is the Fancy Clown (Pam Chermansky), a character who appears to encourage the others in their efforts while pushing her own agenda. Countering her is the sweet but unnerving Fairie Queen (Molly Plunk), who never speaks a word (that we can understand), but whose protective magic guides the company through both Mr. Bluebeard and Burning Bluebeard.

Four of the actors play real-life theatre-folk who were onstage the day of the fire, and the most heartbreaking performance of them all is a toss-up between Leah Urzendowski as Nellie Reed and Ryan Walters as Eddie Foy. Urzendowski is a phenomenal physical actress with perfect timing and a brilliant, disarming persona as aerialist Reed.  Walters as famous comedian Eddie Foy also stuns with a transformation late in the show. Anthony Courser as Henry Guilfoil seems a bit underused until they launch into the performance of Mr. Bluebeard, where he takes a hilarious turn as the villain.

Jay Torrence, who plays stage manager Robert Murray, also wrote the show and clearly serves as captain of the ship at times. The play evolved out of a workshop process initiated at The Neo-Futurists, and taking the time to explore the story via clown play pays off wonderfully – there isn’t a false note in a perfectly-paced 90 minute show.

Each actor is superbly cast and has a discrete relationship to each other and to their part of history. This group has developed a into true ensemble, with each member giving and taking in service of the story as needed.

Burning Bluebeard engages not only your eyes and ears, but your heart and your mind. It’s equal parts whimsy and heartbreak, and the fact that, in the end, it’s a Chicago story is icing on the cake. It’s a not-Christmas Christmas play, and a wonderful foil to conventional holiday-themed shows: at its heart, it espouses the spirit of giving and love that Christmas is supposed to evoke.  Go. Be moved.


TEN WORD SUMMARY:  A memory love-song brought to life by incredible performances.

RATING:  d20 = “One Of The Best”