“Inside an empty theatre is a history of words that just hang in the air.”
It’s the top of the play, and the theater is dark. Slowly a soft blue light fills the space – at first very dim, and hardly noticeable. Eerie music plays, and Robert Murray (Jay Torrence) enters the stage with a monologue that prepares us for that which we are about to see. The stage is still dim, and Robert can only just be made out in the shadows. This is a play about ghosts in a theater that has been shut down for years, and a play about the stories that stem from them. “Inside an empty theatre is a history of words that just hang in the air,” and as Robert goes on to explain:
“We theater people, we love our stories.”
We are easily coaxed by his words to sit back and open our minds to the story about to unfold…
Porchlight Music Theatre presents Burning Bluebeard
Written by Jay Torrence, Burning Bluebeard is a physical theatre performance inspired by the true events of the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire that killed 600 patrons. This company at the center of the story gathers to present Mr. Bluebeard – the play they could never finish due to the fire. In the process, they discover so much more about the ghosts that not only haunt the theater, but also the guilt that surrounds their personal part in the catastrophic events.
The Ruffians’ original production premiered in 2011, and features music, clowning, acrobatics, and dance alongside a re-telling of history. Helmed by Director Helena Kays, the artistic team creates an atmosphere of magic and wonder – striking this writer as perfect for this time of year.
Breaking the Fourth Wall
Even in the larger Ruth Page Center for the Arts space, Burning Bluebeard relies on a close connection with the audience. The performers are constantly breaking the fourth wall. As the company sets out to perform the play that caused the Great Iroquois Fire – we are aware that they hope not to kill us, the audience, in the process. In order to do so, they ask for complete consent from the patrons. Early in the performance they ask for an audience representative to come on stage and sign a laughably large contract that specifically states the risk we are all about to take on – given what happened in the past. The audience’s laughter radiates around the room, and in the process, the company is appropriately setting us up for that which is about to unfold.
The play is very much an ensemble piece, where the group’s comedic timing and chemistry keep the tale haunting. At the same time, these performers are clowns, and the humor brightens the mood – keeping us laughing in the midst of the darker interludes.
As the pantomime of Mr. Bluebeard unfolds, each of the ensemble members finds a moment of isolation on stage in which they share more about their own experience with the fire. At the top of the play, the company invokes the power of The Faerie Queen (Crosby Sandoval) to help them on their journey. In each of these spotlight moments, the Faerie Queen hands the company member a lantern – a lantern that they carry with them as they tell their story, and hand to an audience member when they are finished. So much of the play rests in a world that is larger than life – whether that be heightened comedy or jaw-dropping choreography and acrobatic sequences. In contrast, these moments of isolation are incredibly intimate, but every bit as striking.
When Nellie Reed (Leah Urzendowski) steps up for her moment, The Faerie Queen hands her the lantern. The stage is fairly dark, allowing the lantern to create a ghostly glow on Nellie’s face. She explains how she was an aerialist in Mr. Bluebeard, and describes the sights she was able to see from hanging so high above. Urzendowski’s monologue is full of passion and haunting nostalgia, and at the end, she hands her lantern to an audience member with the plea, “Will you remember me?” The moment is quick and subtle, but every eye was on the two of them in this Opening Performance, and this writer could certainly feel the weight of the emotion. Burning Bluebeard is about a lot of things – history, ghosts, love, and loss. However, at the root is also a tale of what it means to be forgotten, and how important it is to shed light on the lost stories of the everyday.
Full of beauty and wonder, Burning Bluebeard is a must-see. This writer has certainly not stopped thinking about the performance since, and feels confident that she has a new Chicago holiday tradition.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Playing through December 27, 2019
Thursday, Dec. 19 at 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Dec. 20 at 8 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 21 at 3:30 and 8 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 22 at 2 and 6 p.m.
Thursday, Dec. 26 at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. and
Friday, Dec 27 at 3:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.
The Ruth Page Center for the Arts
1016 N. Dearborn Street
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.
Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.