By Ian Rigg
Christmas is an inherently dark time.
Since days of old, the Yuletide meant that we were halfway through the dark. Why have a festival halfway through nature’s cruelest season? Because not everyone would live to see the other side. And if we don’t have something to celebrate, how else are we meant to muddle through?
As an adult, every Christmas becomes tinged by this merry melancholy, filled with festivities and memories of the people who are no longer here to celebrate it with us. There’s still the childlike sense of magic and wonder, but gifts give way to deeper desires—Who doesn’t wish to turn back the clock? Who doesn’t wish to erase time? Who doesn’t wish for a happy ending?
The Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 left every Chicagoan wishing for such a miracle. During a matinee of a Christmas pantomime, the spark of a stage light caught a curtain on fire and caused a perfect storm chain reaction disaster where 600 audience members and one performer still caught in her rigging were killed.
In the wake of such a cataclysm, who takes the blame? Who handles the heartache? This tone is clear from the beginning of The Ruffians’ (presented by Porchlight) Burning Bluebeard. A chilling children’s choir wafts through the space as embattled, long-dead stage manager Robert Murray takes the stage to grimly lay the scene by the light of a single lantern. And then the show actually kicks off for real when the performers break out of body bags and throw down to a mashup of “Final Countdown” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
That’s the name of the game here. The phantasmagorical action swings between two poles: hauntingly foreboding, and touchingly hysterical. Utterly hilarious one moment, then terribly heartbreaking the next. Clever, chaotic, cathartic comedy and terrifying, tumultuous, and touching tragedy. The performers, burnt by fire and by trauma alike in the bombed out limbo of their onetime glory, rise again to recount that fateful production of the long-forgotten Mr. Bluebeard, and hopefully, luckily, finally, maybe this time, the tragedy of Act II won’t happen again.
Daring director Halena Kays wisely, expertly guides the interactive show from the bizarre to the beautiful to the breaking, and then back ‘round the other way. Jay Torrence’s titanic script is a madcap multigenre experiment that works without a hitch due to its roots in real emotion, regret, and quixotic hope. Together, true to theatrical traditions, Kays and Torrence work a gag a minute. Burning Bluebeard brilliantly takes big beats from vaudeville, pantomime, Lip Sync Battle and even Icelandic techno as its delightfully deranged veers between merry and melancholic on its masterfully-crafted descent into madness and ascent into forgiveness
The ever-impeccable Jeff Kmiec designs a jaw-droppingly decrepit ruin of a gorgeous theater that only lived for 5 weeks, dressed to perfection with plucked out-of-time touches and cool glimpses of the wings behind the curtain. It is transcended by the marvelous lighting design of Maggie Fullilove-Nugent that work beautifully. Costumer Bill Morey conjures the exact look of “lovable vagabonds of faded glitz and dubious mental state” the show is going for, calling to mind the best kind of creepy vintage photos of early 20th century Halloween. Sound designer Mike Tutaj deserves a Jeff Nomination for enduring wherever he had to source the scary audio from alone, let alone it’s chilling impact.
There’s tumbling, acrobatics, music, clowning, and dance, with killer choreography by rising Chicago great Ariel Triunfo.
If the powerhouse creative team lays the kindling, it’s the actors who light the flame. They burn brilliantly: this excellent ensemble of 6 actors is truly otherworldly in talent and synchronization. Audiences are captivated by the spookily booming elocution of Pamela Chermansky, the droll and delightful delivery of Anthony Courser, the melancholy monologues of huggable Jay Torrence, the sensitively sadsack clowning of Ryan Walters, the soaring energy of Leah Urzendowski and the graceful contortion and incredible nonverbal chops of Crosby Sandoval.
As they split sides and break hearts, they just might get you believing in magic again.
If a disaster like the Iroquois Theater could only happen in Chicago, so too could such a triumph as Burning Bluebeard. It combines the best of the bold storefront spirit with the mastery and acumen of its grander houses, building to an unforgettable ending. You’d be hard-pressed to find a dry eye in the audience after the show’s final image. Maybe this time we’ll all get what we want for Christmas after all.
Chicago’s holiday hit, “The Ruffians’ Burning Bluebeard,” plays through December 27 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. For tickets and more, click here.