BWW Reviews: A Hauntingly Beautiful BURNING BLUEBEARD

Equal parts haunting, riveting and humorous, the Hypocrites' presentation of the Ruffian's holiday hit BURNING BLUEBEARD is not to be missed.

This is not Scrooge or Peanuts Christmas pageant, however. I wouldn't say it's for kids and the only thing "holiday" about it is the time period in which it takes place. It recounts the events the Iroquois Theatre Fire of Dec. 30, 1903. The deadliest theater fire in American history, the Oriental Theatre now stands on the site of the Iroquois and some of the deceased audience members who perished in the fire have been rumored to still roam that current theater. It ranks up there with the Eastland disaster and the Great Chicago Fire in terms of tragic historic Chicago events.

BURNING BLUEBEARD recreates the particulars of the tragedy, buffering them with comedy courtesy of the play-within-a-play construct as the six-member clown ensemble return to finish the play (this time, hopefully, without a fire and loss of additional audience members' lives). The comedy never feels like it comes at the expense of the tragedy, however. The particulars are recalled with almost a kind of sacred reverence.

Essentially, most of the performers and stage hand have escaped the fire, but they are unable to escape the tragedy from it. They are doomed to a sort of purgatory where they try to finish the play without the ensuing tragedy.

Playwright Jay Torrence is both sympathetic and tortured as stage hand Robert Murry, the person cited for opening a stage door which allowed the cast to vacate the building, but also allowed a cold, Chicago winter wind to fan the flames. Ryan Walters gives a heart-breaking performance as Eddie Foy, the comedian who urged patrons to remain seated despite the peril. Anthony Courser is Henry Gilfoil (the actor who played Bluebeard). He searches for the good in his character much like we are asked to find something positive from the tragedy itself. Leah Urzendowski is a sprite-like Nellie Reed, an aerialist who perished in the fire whose single desire was to entertain. It's her performance that stayed with me long after I had left the theater. Grateful to Urzendowski for ensuring we remember Reed and her art, but sad in that it was a life cut short.

The only character in the proceedings in which you don't get a sense of profound remorse is Pamela Chyermansky's Fancy Clown. The character is the master of ceremonies that keeps things moving with a sarcastic quip or two, an occasional fire pun and some topical references. The character's mantra seems to very much be "art is fleeting," but I was left feeling like there should be more to the character than that.

Molly Plunk rounds out the cast as the mute Faerie Queen. Much like a pantomime in which a seemingly unstoppable force of evil, she acts as the deus ex machina who is able to give both cast and audience the ending they desire.

Lizzie Bracken's sceneic designs --which include burnt-out wall studs, the remains of an ornate proscenium and a "mable" staircase leading to seats-- succeed in a level of authenticity that chills. Mike Tutaj's sound design also succeeds in ways that haunt you long after the performance.

Strangely, the grisly tale about the worst theater tragedy in American history in which approximately 600 mostly women and children lost their lives ends up being both life and art-affirming. Like the fairy lights the flicker throughout the performance, it serves as a reminded that art is fleeting as much as it is beautiful.

The Hypocrites present The Ruffian's BURNING BLUEBEARD runs though Jan. 10, 2016 at the Den Theatre's Heath Main Stage, 1329 N. Milwaukee. Tickets, $36.

The production will include two peformances on the 112th anniversary of the actual fire at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Dec. 30th.

Photo Credit: BWW-Staff

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