Review: Chicago’s History Flames Again in Burning Bluebeard by the Ruffians

Clockwise from bottom left, Torrence, Courser, Chermansky, Urzendowski, Sandoval and Walters. Photo by Michael Courier.

As part of its 25th anniversary season, Porchlight Music Theatre is presenting the Ruffians’ indispensable Christmas show Burning Bluebeard. Inspired by the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire, Burning Bluebeard is hardly typical Christmas fare. In fact, there is and never has been anything quite like it on the Chicago stage: created by the ragtag Chicago theater group known as the Ruffians, Burning Bluebeard is an unclassifiable hybrid of comedy and great pathos buoyed by uniformly wonderful performances.

Directed by Halena Kays and written by Jay Torrence who also plays the crucial role of the genial stagehand, Robert Murray, Burning Bluebeard is, at turns, poetic, lyrical, poignant, tragic, hilarious, and devastatingly sad. Torrence is some kind of genius because it takes a genius, or a clown (some would say they are the same thing) to take such a tragic story—a fire at a downtown theater during the festive holiday season—and turn it into an incandescent and wondrous holiday treasure that somehow, despite its dark subject matter, ends on a hopeful note.

Torrence, Courser, Urzendowski, Walters and Sandoval. Photo by Michael Courier.

“We theater people love our stories,” says one of the characters. The story is a well-known one, or at least it should be. On December 30, 1903, during the matinee performance of Mr. Bluebeard, a burlesque tale based on the Bluebeard legend, a fire broke out at the Iroquois Theatre on Randolph Street, and killed 600 people, many of them children. It was reportedly the deadliest single building fire in American history.

What’s more, the theater had been open a little over a month and, according to playbills and advertisements of the time, was said to be “absolutely fireproof.”

That was the boast. That was the claim. But it wasn’t true.

The production opens on a haunting note as the actors emerge from several black body bags lying onstage in the shadow of the evocative Iroquois set.  But then they try to put us at ease with their irreverent humor––referring, for example, to “the hottest show in town”––and at first their vaudevillian antics and overall silliness verges on absurdity. But the cast is terrific: Pamela Chermansky as Fancy Clown, who serves as the wickedly funny emcee of sorts; Anthony Courser as Henry Gilfoil who plays Bluebeard in mock seriousness, complete with faux crown perched on his head; Crosby Sandoval as the silent, ethereal Faerie Queen; Leah Urzendowski as the daredevil aerialist Nellie Reed; Ryan Walters as Chicago’s hometown hero, Eddie Foy; and Torrence in the heartbreaking role of stagehand Robert Murray.

Torrence, Urzendowski, Walters and Courser. Photo by MIchael Courier.

In its restaging of Mr Bluebeard, the Ruffians incorporate many elements typically found in pantomimes of the time, including silent scenes consisting only of dancing or some sort of physical movement, slapstick, audience participation, cross-dressing, risqué humor, gags, and exquisite use of contemporary songs. The latter is pitch perfect: the contained chaos of Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” in the early moments foreshadows what is to follow. It feels right too that the opening piano chords of John Lennon’s wistful “Imagine” seamlessly morphs into the cynicism of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.”

But then things turn dark.

As the historical record shows, the capacity crowd of mostly women and children watched as the cast performed a little musical number, “In the Pale Moonlight” when sparks from a theatrical lamp ignited a muslin curtain. The stagehand tried to douse the flames but to no avail. Eddie Foy, the Irish-American actor, comedian, dancer, and vaudevillian, did his best to calm the crowd and encouraged everyone to stay in their seats. He even ordered the orchestra to continue to play. But when someone opened the stage door, a rush of cold winter air entered and fanned the flames. Clocks stopped. It was 3:15 p.m. The cast tells all of these details and more of the story, their anguish apparent in every line.

The Iroquois Theatre on Randolph Street 1903. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As the climax approaches, the auditorium fills with red haze, an effect that comes as close as theatrically possible to understand what the Iroquois audience must have gone through. It is a chilling moment. We hear recorded sounds of screaming and the crisp burning of embers. We learn that it took all of 15 minutes for the damage to be done.  In total, 575 people died; 30 more succumbed in the coming weeks and countless more suffered injuries. Nellie Reed, the aerialist, perished in the flames. She had planned to fly over the audience and shower them with pink carnations. Instead, her dress, we are told, burnt “like paper.”

“It was supposed to be beautiful,” says Torrence as the heartbroken stagehand.

But just as things couldn’t get any darker, there is a moment of tender melancholy, a reprise from the shadows: red confetti falls onto the stage and onto the audience, turning what were once embers into roses, darkness into light.

Historical note: After the fire, the Iroquois Theatre was renamed and reopened, in 1904, as the Colonial Theatre. The building was demolished in 1925, and the Oriental Theatre, now the James M. Nederlander Theatre, was built on the site.

Photo by June Sawyers.

In 1912 the noted Chicago sculptor Lorado Taft created a bronze bas-relief tablet to commemorate the fire. The tablet originally hung in the waiting room of the Iroquois Memorial Hospital and, decades later, was found in the basement of City Hall. Today it is located in the lobby of City Hall on the LaSalle Street side, a short walk away from the tragic events that took place on that cold winter afternoon.

Burning Bluebeard by the Ruffians continues through December 27 at Porchlight Music Theatre, staged at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St. Tickets are $45 for performances Thursday-Sunday. There are two shows on December 21, 22, 26 and 27. Running time is 100 minutes with no intermission.The theater offers this parental guidance note: The production is PG-13 and contains adult language and themes.

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June Sawyers

June Sawyers has published more than 25 books. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, New City, San Francisco Chronicle, and Stagebill. She teaches at the Newberry Library and is the founder of the arts group, the Phantom Collective.