Review: BURNING BLUEBEARD at Neo-Futurists

Review: BURNING BLUEBEARD at Neo-Futurists

Pictured (front, l to r): Jay Torrence, Pamela Chermansky, and Ryan Walters with (back, l to r) Dave Honigman, Kaitlyn Andrews, and Crosby Sandoval. Photo by Evan Hanover.

By Josh Flanders

The Ruffians’ “Burning Bluebeard” at the Neo-Futurists is a play where the actors play actors from a play who are playing actors from a story, all of which ends tragically in a fire in a theater that was a fire hazard, put on in a current-day theater that is (perhaps ironically) also a fire hazard. (At one point they actually wheel out a chalkboard to humorously review emergency exit procedures.) Yes, art often imitates life. Comedy is tragedy plus time (no one alive today is still mourning a century’s old tragedy), but a play about the 1903 fire at the Iroquois Theater (now the site of the Oriental Theatre, soon to be the James M. Nederlander Theatre) in Chicago during a production of “Bluebeard” that kills over 600 people could easily go down in flames (oh, the puns this play has!). Gladly, “Burning Bluebeard” is the perfect combination of absurdist, gleefully self-aware humor and serious drama to balance such a risky undertaking.

Combining early 20th-century pantomime elements such as silent scenes, silly slapstick, cross-dressing, and actors engaging directly with the audience, the cast of six employ physical and verbal acrobatics in an effort to re-stage their play within a play within a play and give it a happy ending, instead of one where hundreds are killed. Popular songs are repurposed and jokes of the era are balanced with modern humor, as well as modern sensibilities that recognize the inherent racism of shows like “Bluebeard” and call it out. Writer Jay Torrence uses the “Bluebeard” story (not the story of the fire, the actually “Bluebeard” story that was playing, are you confused yet?) as a device to tell an even truer story, one where the evil villain doesn’t get his comeuppance and good doesn’t triumph over tragedy.

“Burning Bluebeard” is often surprising, occasionally hilarious, and very well cast. Pamela Chermansky, as Fancy Clown, holds the entire audience’s attention with her incredible comic timing and is an absolute delight to watch. Torrence plays Robert Murray, the real-life building engineer, an engaging and thoughtful character. Kaitlyn Andrews plays Nellie Reed, an acrobat whose physicality ignites (I did it again) wonder as she vividly illustrates soaring above the crowd. Andrews makes wonderful use of the small theater and would clearly be served by performing this in a theater that could actually make use of a real harness.

“Burning Bluebeard” takes a many-faceted look at Chicago in 1903 with comedic vignettes, as well as the production and story of “Bluebeard” itself. This is art, in that the music, pantomime, and story itself are often a collision of ideas, sounds, and images that combine to make something greater, even when alone they may be incomprehensible. Torrence explores several larger themes throughout the show, such as using fear to teach children, or the desire to revisit a tragedy in order to fix what went wrong, an idea with echoes of psychoanalysis, an emerging field at the time.

The first half of “Burning Bluebeard” (a 100-minute show with no intermission) gets a bit repetitive, with some jokes being played over and over. Yet silliness eventually turns to sincerity, and this Russian nesting doll of a play gets to its center, looking unflinchingly at the humanity and the tragedy, and wrapping it all up in a bow of enchantment that only live theater can do. While the handful of performances left this year are mostly sold-out, get on their waiting list to see this most unique show.

About author

Josh Flanders

Josh Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. He is a writer for Choice The Musical and half of the comedy duo Flanders. Josh is a contributor for Chicago Reader and Chicagoland Musical Theatre, a member of the American Theater Critics Association, and a graduate of the Second City Conservatory. He is co-owner of Flanders Consulting.