It was said at the time Chicago's Iroquois Theatre was the greatest and grandest theater to be built west of New York, and it opened in November of that year with an extravaganza called Mr. Bluebeard that featured over 200 performers. As with the Titanic, corners were cut in the construction of the theater and there were design flaws, like fake ornamental exits and inadequate fire escapes that made the theater a deathtrap when a fire broke out on stage during a matinee and spread into the house, killing over 600 patrons, mostly women and children.
The conceit of the excellent original script by Jay Torrence has the stage manager and five cast members rising from body bags as ghosts and attempting to finish the performance they were giving when the blaze broke out early in the second act. We learn later that none of these six actually died in the fire, but their ghostly figures are frozen in the soot-filled clothing (designed by Lizzie Bracken) and smudged faces as they would have appeared immediately after the blaze. We're somehow in the remains of the building, which no longer standsthe Oriental Theatre was built on its site in 1926. We're addressed as the audience attending a performance of Mr. Bluebeard performed by ghosts in the ghost of the theatre itself. The ethereal performers warn us that every time they attempt to get through a complete performance the fire happens again, just as it did that afternoon, and that every audience who attempts to see this recreation dies. Still, they proceed and we stay.
Torrence's script is funny and poetic. Playing the stage manager, author Torrence tells us that words linger in the theater. His characters are very aware that, having promised an afternoon of entertainment to their audience, they instead delivered a horrific death to many of them. The ghosts are clearly driven by guilt about that. Even so, Torrence and director Halena Kays's company find humor in the storysome from their gentle parody of the era's performance styles and some from Torrence's satire of the arrogant folly of the theater operators. The playersan aerial artist (Leah Urzendowski Courser), the actor playing Bluebeard (Anthony Courser), a clown (Dean Evans), the fairy queen (Molly Plunk), the stage manager (Torrance) and the featured comedian Eddie Foy, Sr. (Ryan Walters)proceed with their performance from the top.
The show, which originally included a retelling of the story of Bluebeard and his wives, and included many totally unrelated songs and acts, is recreated in parts here. Panto, dance, gymnastics and aerial stunts are performed with the cast periodically interrupting to tell the story of events leading up to the fire. Torrence's carefully researched historical details are relayed to show how policies, like locking the street doors from the outside and padlocking the stairway from the gallery so that patrons from the "cheap seats" couldn't descend to claim better seating, contributed to the disaster. When the asbestos fire curtain failed to fully descend after sparks from a light caught fire and a jammed stage door suddenly was forced open to allow cold December air to enter the building and fan the flames into the house, over a third of the audience, mostly those in the gallery, perished.
The theatera black box space at the multi-stage Theater Wit venuehas been transformed into the charred remains of the Iroquois through the magical set design by Dan Broberg. Together with the lighting by Maggie Fullilove-Nugent (who also serves as production manager), the entire space is used to envelop and involve the audience. Accent lights are placed throughout the house and some in the seats hold candles for a time. Along with some effective sound effects by Mike Tutaj (normally known as the king of Chicago projection design) and even some aerial work, the audience is fully immersed. This productionan expanded remounting of the premiere production in 2011 at the Neo-Futurariumprovides a level of stagecraft I have never seen in a black box space like this. This production may well redefine what sorts of production values are possible in spaces like this.
Director Halena Keys has somehow mixed together these various performance styles, musical genres (from 1903 period to present-day techno), comedy and tragedy into a ninety-minute package that celebrates live entertainment as much as it honors the victims and grieves over their tragedy. It manages to be honest, but not morbid, in its telling of the story. It's a moving and entertaining piece for all audiences (age 10 and up, I'd suggest), but a must-see for any theater lover.
Burning Bluebeard will play Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago through January 5, 2014. For ticket information, call 773-975-8150 or visit www.theaterwit.org.