Sunday, December 18, 2011

Inventive Take on Grim Tale Doesn't Fully Satisfy -- Theater Review: Burning Bluebeard

Theater Review

Burning Bluebeard
written by Jay Torrence, directed by Halena Kays
Performed by the Neo-Futurists
Neofuturarium, Chicago
Thru December 30, 2011

December 30, 1903 stands as one of the darkest days in Chicago history. Near the start of Act 2 at a matinee performance of Mr. Bluebeard, a play at the grand new Iroquois Theatre--on Randolph Street where the Oriental Theatre now stands--a fire broke out above the stage.

With many theatrical fire codes that would be prompted by the catastrophe therefore not yet in place, the fire failed to be harnessed and many of the 2,000 patrons were trapped as the balcony was instantly consumed by a huge fireball, and many others trampled.

More than 600 audience members--mostly women & children--died, as did a single performer.

Burning Bluebeard, the new short-run evening show by the Neo-Futurists--as opposed to their late-night standby Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind--could probably be best categorized as a play, although per the troupe's trademark, not a straightforward one.

Ostensibly about the Iroquois Theatre fire, as seen through the eyes of a handful of Mr. Bluebeard's cast of hundreds, the show includes trained clowns, various low-grade acrobatics and a pre-recorded choral rendition of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." A version of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" is also performed, as a mashup with the music of "Imagine." This should provide a sense of what I mean by "not straightforward."

While the production prompted historical curiosity about this tragic event in a rather inventive fashion as written by ensemble member Jay Torrence, who also performs in the show, in sum it was a bit too obtuse for me to really like it.

Toward the end, when the actual moments of the fire were described, the show was tremendously gripping. But what came prior, although well-performed, different from much else I see and at times quite funny, didn't quite enthrall me. And I felt the show ran at least 15 minutes too long, with the post-fire unwinding seeming unnecessary.

Burning Bluebeard has been well-reviewed elsewhere and well-attended, so particularly if you're well-acclimated with the Neo-Futurists, you may find it tremendously rewarding. To be honest, I really disliked Too Much Light... the one time I saw it, so perhaps I'm just missing something when it comes to this venerable local troupe.

Given my interest in the subject matter, the quality of the performances, the effort to do something new and the $10 ticket through HotTix, I would say that Burning Bluebeard technically qualifies as worthwhile. But unless your tastes are a good bit more avant garde than mine, you do just as well by reading about the actual fire on Wikipedia and exploring further from there.

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