When I was a teenager, I told people I wanted to be an artist because that meant I would never hurt anyone, never take anything from others not willingly offered, never harm strangers physically or emotionally. Years after earning my theatre degree and making a career as a playwright, I now know that art can impact and even hurt people in ways I never imagined as a young fan of the musicals my high school performed.
In the Chicago classic “Burning Bluebeard,” the actors retell and re-live the destruction of the 1903 Iroquois Theater. All they wanted to do, they tell their contemporary audience, is create moonlight. They wanted to bring magic to their early twentieth century audience just after Christmas. But it was their lighting scheme that set the curtains and the building alight. And it was an actor who advised audience members — mostly women and children — to stay in their seats and remain calm, rather than find a safe exit. It was an actor who forced open the backstage door that created a backdraft and consumed the audience.
What is the value of art in a moment of destruction? The Ruffians production, last year produced by Porchlight Music Theatre, asks this annually around late December, just as the original 1903 actors of “Mr. Bluebeard” presented their Christmas pantomime for an eager audience of families. This year, “Burning Bluebeard” is presented as an archival performance from the 2019 edition of the play, and it is an enlightening experience to watch this play, even from afar, in 2020.
The theaters are closed, stage manager Robert Murray (“Burning Bluebeard” playwright Jay Torrence) informs us after the lights rise. This comes by order of the mayor, because theaters across Chicago are deemed unsafe for groups to gather in. Already, goosebumps dotted my skin, as I recognized a parallel to our pandemic lives. But the show must go on, his fellow company members insist: Fancy Clown (Pamela Chermansky), a lover of melodrama and drawn-out emotional moments; Henry Gilfoil (Anthony Courser), who insists that his Mr. Bluebeard has psychology, and cannot just be a villain; Eddie Foy (Ryan Walters), a comedian who brought his young son to the day’s performance; and Nellie Reed (Leah Urzendowski), the aerialist ballerina, who drops crimson petals on the upper balcony during a regular, uninterrupted performance. They are aided in their recreation of events by the Faerie Queen (Crosby Sandoval), and they hope this time around, they will create moonlight and keep the audience safe.
As developed by the original company years ago, and directed by Halena Kays, this group of actors embraces the presentational aspects of early twentieth century performance by clowning with each other and the audience. Each character is introduced in bold strokes, one lighting a lighter to the fright of others; another spurting blood and strangling themselves to death in dark humor that comforts the viewer. By the time events turn serious, the audience is as off-kilter as the original audience might have been; when matters become life and death, not magic and the mundane, there is nothing anyone can do to change them.
Associate sound designer Robert Hornbostel supports these tonal shifts with well-timed shifts into Amy Winehouse, and even utilizing an eerie take on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Lighting designer Maggie Fullilove-Nugent creates lanterns and a hanging bunch of Edison light bulbs that become menacing rather than magical by play’s end. And the choreography by Leah Urzendowski and Ariel Etana Trifuno turns from playful dance numbers to the creation of a burning audience of flailing arms and stomping feet.
By the end of “Burning Bluebeard,” you learn what made this theatrical event unforgettable. It wasn’t moonlight. It was the safety violations the actors could not anticipate, and though they feel responsible for what happened to their audience, they deserve to have their stories remembered, as they were not the ones who locked doors and gates; they were not the ones who built the building or oversold the show and crowded the aisles. In fact, their experience led to the creation of rules we still follow, to ensure safety in all theatre spaces. And the horror they witnessed also led to the creation of the crash bar on emergency doors in public places. They wanted to create something magical, but they became the harbingers of something much more important. Their tragedy is that they could not possibly save everyone, something that is true of artists in 2020, too. But like our current moment, they can still reach out with the resources they have, and tell stories that matter.
DICE RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: A moment in theatre history brought to life shows us now.
Show: “Burning Bluebeard”
Company: The Ruffians & Porchlight Music Theatre
Venue: Ruth E. Page Center for the Arts (1016 N Dearborn St)