Theatre in Review

Wednesday, 12 April 2017 19:27

The? Unicorn Hour? Come and Get Your Joy!

Leah Urzendowski and Anthony Courser have created a show that is part comedy, part play therapy that is truly a joy to behold. Don't skip the opening steps. When you enter the lobby, you will be asked to write down one of your fears and place it in an envelope. Then you will be asked to think of something that brings you Joy and bring that thought with you as you enter "The Joy Womb". The Neo Futurium has been cleverly lined with mismatched sheets, colored lights beneath to create a lovely, cozy joy womb effect. 

 

The? Unicorn? Hour? begins with an awesome light show in the "womb" accompanied by terrific music and sound effects to which Leah and Anthony (who are a couple in real life) enter wearing dark capes and much smoke, which is soon thrown off to show that they are actually dressed in beautifully crafted, silvery unitards as Unicorns of Joy! 

 

"The mighty rumpus that defeats the evil!" They cry out then ask if we are feeling scared, defeated etc. by what's going on in the world, inviting the audience to join them in their journey to transform fear into real joy. 

 

Both actors are fantastic physical comedians (having been creators together on the popular play "Burning Bluebeard", the unique show in which actors from the deathly 1903 Iroquois Theater fire where over 600 audience members were killed), and try to get through the show without killing their audience this time, as well. But Leah Urzendowski is a real dancer in every sense of the word, expressive, muscular, sensitive and flexible. Her dancing as the Unicorn takes the show into another realm of professionalism and put of pure clowning. 

 

There is a special guest from another show, I won't reveal because there will be a new special guest each week but this Eeyore-like character enters to the music "Lonely Boy" and the audience sees clearly that joy is a choice, as the pair tries to get him to cheer up using a bubble machine. He keeps insisting over and over, "Those bubbles are just gonna pop. There goes another one and another one, they are all popping!" 

 

There is a "swear square" where tensions are released by letting out swear words, but when Courser gets too carried away after starting off with innocent words like “dang” and “darn it” and the swearing turns mean and scary i.e. "I've got a bag of dicks and I'm going to stir it in a pot to make myself a dickwich to…," she eventually stops him. It's a tiny little feminist statement that many miss because in today's anything goes type of political correctness sometimes things just go too far in that dark "pornographic" way and women and children end up feeling threatened instead of empowered to express their own anger however gentle it may be. 

 

There is a fabulous physical bit where Courser pantomimes a journey to the top of a mountain that includes horseback riding, to flying, to parachuting to snow climbing among other fun-tastic feats. But as they both reach the top, the audience is suddenly enveloped in darkness and fear again. 

 

This is where the cast members come around and start asking us to name our fears and if we’d like to give them to the players to take away from us. Some of the fears in our audience were loneliness, fear of being alone in the dark, a pet or loved one dying, failure, never being more than I am now and drowning in cold water. But by the end of the show we are all asked to shout out our joys - the sound of a dog drinking water, a fresh piece of buttered toast, easy money, cuddling in bed all day, etc. and the room is restored to feelings of Joyous Surrender to the music and dancing these two have created. 

 

Their dance numbers really are both comical and extraordinarily demanding and professional, with the two winding about each other like seahorses made to fit as one beautiful, silvery creature with Leah's legs wrapped around Courser’s waist or even his neck as she peers out between his knees to whisper "JOY!" 

 

I have to say this is the MOST fun and joy I have had in recent years at any comedy in Chicago and promising an audience as stressed out as Chicago audience members are now by the political disasters and death unfolding around us every day, delivering a dose of real JOY in the theater world, is a REAL achievement! 

 

I highly recommend this hilarious, thought-provoking and most of all FUN, delightful, refreshing, exciting, comforting and colorful piece of work to anyone who is seeking to remember how to have a little joy in their lives right NOW. 

 

The? Unicorn? Hour? Runs just over an hour and is currently being performed at the Neo Futurium in Andersonville through May 13th (hopefully an extension will take place). For tickets and more show information visit www.neofuturist.org.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

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.

  

 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Almost as funny as it is tragic (that sounds so wrong), The Ruffians’ Burning Bluebeard, currently running at Theatre Wit, is a very unique live performance that everyone should experience. Bluebeard is an ensemble piece that recreates the stage performance that took place during the famous 1903 Iroquois Theater fire that claimed over 600 lives on Randolph Street in downtown Chicago.

The moment we enter the stage area, we are met with body bags that lie on a charred theater floor. It is a melancholy scene that sends chills up one’s spine. We soon are introduced to five stage performers and a theater manager who each tell their story of what they were doing at the time the fire struck. This happens in between the recreation of acts leading up to the tragedy. During this process we laugh and laugh some more. How can there be something funny found in something so disastrous? Masterfully, playwright Jay Torrence is able to infuse a dark humor throughout this tragic historical event. Each character delivers a knockout performance drawing laughs at will from the crowd one moment and bringing tears to one’s eyes the next.

One of the year’s best, this show is like no other.  Its vivid descriptiveness relates to the audience to the point you really feel you know the characters and are experiencing the tragedy along with them. Grim and morose is the story though comical are many of the surrounding facts such as the Mr. Bluebeard itself, the massively produced play with over four hundred cast members that was running at the time of the great fire. A play that hardly made any sense and depended on large visuals, an overload of song numbers (nine songs in first act alone) and dazzling acrobatics.

We are described beautifully the stunning details of the sixteen hundred seat Iroquois Theater, a majestic auditorium with no costs spared during its creation that was touted as fireproof just as the Titanic was called unsinkable nine years later. The sad truths are slowly released whereas mostly women and children were in attendance at this standing room only matinee performance, and that the theater was nearly escape proof once the fire erupted.  

Wonderfully directed by Halana Kays, Burning Bluebeard makes exceptional use of its limited space, successfully creating the illusion of a much larger scaled production. Ensemble members Pam Chermansky and author Jay Torrence lead the way delivering mesmerizing performances in this multi-talented and very colorful cast with Anthony Courser, Molly Plunk, Leah Urzendowski and Ryan Walters. And thanks to imaginative costume design, we have no problem believing we are present at a 1903 production.

In Burning Bluebeard we are treated to a rare flavor of theatre that is sure to leave a lasting impression. 

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

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