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Review Mon Nov 25 2013

Burning Bluebeard an Offbeat Holiday Treat

BurningBluebeard-1.jpgThe Ruffians' Burning Bluebeard bills itself as an "avant-garde alternative to the holidays" and that is a fine start to describing it...but what transpires onstage is a transcendent, haunting paen to the spirit of enchantment that permeates the best live performance and the best of the winter holidays.

Set on the stage of the burned Iroquois Theatre, the piece recounts the history of the infamous fire that occurred there on December 30, 1903. The history, which seems well-researched from a quick glance at Wikipedia and Google, was the worst theater fire in history. The fire killed 600 women and children, who were in the house for the matinee performance. It was a terrible tragedy that closed down all of the theaters in Chicago for a period of time, revealed massive corruption in the fire inspection department of the City and helped to reform fire code for theaters. The Iroquois itself stood at the site of today's Oriental Theater downtown in the Loop.

The set of Burning Bluebeard is meant to capture the splendor and decay of that space post-fire. Designed by Dan Broberg, it provides a perfect backdrop for the ensuing action. With a giant arch set off by a plaque with two chubby cupids on it, the bare lath walls are covered in hundreds of looping wires and ropes, apt foreshadowing of the action of the play. A smoky veneer covers the stage and the set smells of freshly burnt wood. A dozen bare bulbs hanging from cords flicker with amber filaments. Five black bodybags are littered about the stage.

The action begins as Robert Murray, the stagehand, (Jay Torrence, who also wrote the script) hangs a glowing moon on the wall. Lit by pale yellow and blue lights, the moon serves as an icon for the plot and foretells the action of the play. At the beginning of the play, he lifts the moon and begins the tell the story, and an eerie children's choir begins to sing. The sound is so freaky and strange, it's mind-bending when you realize that it's Scala & Kolacny Brothers cover of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. During this musical interlude, the sound blends with Wax Audio's mashup of Smells Like Teen Spirit with Europe's The Final Countdown, and the actors emerge from the bodybags and all join in a relentlessly affable, upbeat and slightly menacing high-energy dance number.

It's this kind of fusion of pop culture, themes and styles of performance that reveals the brilliant direction of Helena Kays. She expertly weaves together pop music, clowning, aerial and acrobatics, physical theater, neo-futurist and neo-vaudevillian themes in a manner that adds to the magic of the piece.

And magical it is. Using the beauty of the creation of moonlight as a sticking point for the plot, the performers weave in and out of the recreation of the production of Mr. Bluebeard, which was the show that was playing at the Iroqouis when the fire broke out. As a cast, the play attempts to correct history by replaying the events of the afternoon in 1903. In between, they play with the audience, handing out gifts that further the action of the play and little mason jars of LED moonlight, sparkling in the audience like the night sky.

There are many things to love about the cast of Burning Bluebeard. It's impossible to list them all, but here are just a few: Dean Evan's smarmy clown character/narrator and his way of getting the audience to conspire with his suggestions; Jay Torrence's bizarre lip-synch number to Germany's mashup of John Lennon's Imagine and Rehab by Amy Winehouse; Leah Urzendowski Courser's monologue about what it was like to be the aerialist for the show; Ryan Walter's vaudevillian moment and his touching monologue about trying to calm the audience; Molly Plunk's spunky charm as the mute fairy princess who brings much of the "magic"; and Anthony Courser's growling Bluebeard.

Overall, Burning Bluebeard is highly successful at both telling a true tragic tale and infusing the story of the retelling with the magic of the holidays. I don't want to reveal too much here, but I will highly recommend the show for an off-the-beaten-path holiday treat.

Burning Bluebeard plays at Theater Wit (1229 W. Belmont Avenue) Thursdays - Sundays from November 21 - January 5. Tickets are $25 - $36 and can be purchased online at, over the phone by calling 773-975-810 or in person at the Theater Wit Box Office. There will be a special performance on Monday, December 30 at 3pm, the exact time of the fire in 1903, commemorating the 110th anniversary of the tragedy.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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