"Burning Bluebeard" (The Ruffians): Fantastical and Believable

useReviewed by Samantha Owens

This holiday season the Ruffians return with their unlikely holiday hit, BURNING BLUEBEARD. I qualify its popularity around the holidays as ‘unlikely’ because it does not have any of the typical components of a holiday story; no magical and unexpected Christmas Eve snowstorm, no wide-eyed child wise beyond his/her years, no touching moments between a lonely elderly neighbor and the young family living next door. No, BURNING BLUEBEARD does not have any of these fail-safe holiday devices. What it does have, however, is a story and cast that bring a Chicago tragedy to life and force the audience to leave with a heightened sense of empathy and humanity. As the cliché goes, ‘you’ll laugh, you’ll cry…’ etc., etc.

Employing a smattering of theatrical styles (pantomime, tumbling, slapstick, vignettes), some ironically, some not, the cast of BURNING BLUEBEARD tells the story of the Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903. The curtain opens to a troupe of six half-burnt members of the cast and crew emerging from body bags, fated to try to tell their story and perform their play without repeating history. The story is as hopeful as it is tragic. Even in the face of their repeated, doomed ending, the cast of characters hold tightly onto the hopes that they will make people happy, make children smile and be remembered well (the exception to this is the dazzling Dean Evans, who portrays a calculating clown whose end game is simply to be legendary). Leah Urzendowki Courser gets under your skin as Nellie Reed, an aerialist who lives to make the children in the ‘poor seats’ happy. Jay Torrence breaks your heart as the gentle and thoughtful stage manager, Robert Murray, in charge of the production the day of the fire. Each character is as fantastical as they are believable, and the cast plays these contradictions perfectly.

The cast’s stellar performance is just one part of the recipe that makes BURNING BLUEBEARD so haunting. Halena Kays’ direction ensures that the audience cannot emotionally ‘check out’ for a moment. All other elements of the production are executed perfectly; the music is original and captivating, the set seems like something out of a dream. Every detail works together to capture the audience’s attention.

The show has an irreverent tone, which, some might argue, cheapens the reality of the Iroquois Theatre fire. I think it does just the opposite. Rather than an overly somber tragedy that keeps the audience at arms’ length, this sharp, witty production draws us in with its humor, making us relate to the characters as whole, complex people. By forging this connection with the audience through humor, the tragedy becomes more palpable - their pain more real. Making us feel and understand what the people in the fire felt, I would argue, is the most respectful way to honor them. Maybe, then it is not so odd that BURNING BLUEBEARD is such a hit around the holidays. It is entertaining - visually and intellectually - but it also strikes an emotional chord and reminds us of what it is to feel empathy, even for people who lived well before us. This, I think, is the greatest takeaway from BURNING BLUEBEARD and what makes it resonate in a season focused on kindness and goodwill to others.

Running Time:  Ninety minutes with no intermission

At The Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago

Written by Jay Torrance

Directed by Halena Kays

Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 7:30pm Sundays at 3pm. Added performances on Sunday, December 15, Sunday, December 22,and Sunday December 29 at 7:30 pm. Special Iroquois Theatre Fire 110th Anniversary Performances on Monday, December 30.

Thru January 5th

Buy Tickets at www.theaterwit.org

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