Theatre

Tuesday, 24 November 2015 21:38

"Burning Bluebeard" Has Become Rich Holiday Tradition in Chicago Featured

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Chicagoans' love for historical dramas and our ghost and gangster bus tours are very popular here, so it is not surprising that this very well written and performed ensemble play about the very real, tragic Iroquois Theater fire in 1903 that killed over six hundred people packed in for an oversold Christmas winter matinee would be such a popular production even during the Holiday season. Powerful, heart-rending, imaginative and filled with dark humor, “Burning Bluebeard” is wonderfully directed by Halena Kays, who is able to so effectively take us back in time to revisit one of the greatest Chicago tragedies in this haunting and magical production.

 

The luxurious brand new and it turns out, unfinished building, The Iroquois Theater, was supposed to be the new "Titanic" of theaters – in this case luxurious and fireproof. So many important things relating to theater safety came out of this tragedy it almost seems destined to have happened in order to teach the world how NOT to construct and maintain theater safety for generations. 

 

Around 3:15 p.m. on December 30th, not long after the second act began, sparks from faulty wiring in a large lighted moon ignited several of the highly flammable scenery props. The stage manager frantically tried to separate the audience from the burning stage by lowering the massive asbestos flame proof curtain, but when it became stuck it did not take long before the quick and furious blaze spread throughout the theater.

 

The theater, which had a max capacity of thirteen hundred, was packed to the gills for this particular matinee performance of Bluebeard with over sixteen hundred audience members, most of whom were women and children. It was so packed that patrons sat in the aisles, squeezed in where they could, blocking doorways in the process. The upper levels were separated from the higher priced seats on the main floor by doors locked with chains so that the children could not "sneak' down to better seats or, as it turned out, escape in case of fire. There were fake doorways covered with heavy black curtains whereas if a perseverant theater goer did manage to break open during an escape attempt, they would find a brick wall on the other side. Wall after wall of glamorous mirrors in the lobby created a funhouse effect further confusing the panicked crowd when they could not find any real windows or unlocked doors.  The fire escapes were not yet completed and reached only halfway down the four story building.

 

Vents in the ceiling were nailed shut and the top of the theater was filled with highly incendiary silk set pieces. The very seats themselves were basically just flammable velvet material stuffed with straw hemp like tinder.

 

Amidst the chaos, unfortunately one of the show’s actors ordered the children, especially those packed shoulder to shoulder in the upper balcony, to sit back down and stay seated until they could exit slowly and safely.  But that was the worst thing they could have done. There were hundreds of performers in this show trapped backstage and when they finally were able to break down the back door which of course was chained and padlocked shut from the outside, it created a backdraft fireball that literally incinerated all of the children and their mothers in the front and upper rows of the balcony so quickly that all of their watches were stopped at precisely the same moment. 

 

Superbly written by Jay Torrence and performed by an outstanding ensemble consisting of Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski, Ryan Walters, Pam Chermansky, Anthony Courser and Molly Plunk, one cannot help but feel the desperation of the original theater crowd along with the relief of being alive in a world where lit EXIT signs and having working fire extinguishers are just part of what one expects for normal audience safety.

 

Every member of this troupe plays a unique role but I have to especially point out Molly Plunk who plays the role of an imaginary faerie queen capable of turning back time and causing the whole event to unfold without danger. Plunk’s delicate and whimsical interpretation of this role is key to keeping hope in the audience alive that somehow reliving this tragedy over and over will cause it not to happen again. 

I have recommended this show highly in the past and every friend I've sent young or old has had the same magical experience watching this unique, darkly funny, and fantastic production. Now in its fourth year, due to the show’s growing popularity, “Burning Bluebeard” has moved to yet a larger venue in The Den Theatre. Performed through January 10th, The Ruffians’ collaboration with The Hypocrites’ “Burning Bluebeard” has become a holiday hit in Chicago and is a sure-fire must see.

More show info can be found www.the-hypocrites.com. The show last approximately one hour and forty minutes with no intermission.

  

 

 

 

 

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