With ‘Burning Bluebeard,’ playwright Jay Torrence pays homage to a past tragedy and celebrates the ongoing power of live theater.
You’ve paid your annual visit to Bedford Falls, stood dutifully through the “Hallelujah” chorus and escorted the little ones to “The Nutcracker.” But before the needles begin to drop from the tree and you tote all that wrapping paper to the curb for recycling, there’s still time to take in one of the most unusual shows of the season: “Burning Bluebeard,” on stage at Theater Wit through Jan. 5.
Written by Jay Torrence, a founder of The Ruffians — the collective of acrobats, clowns and dancers that brings the show to life — “Burning Bluebeard” spins a weird magic from the December 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire, in which hundreds perished. This is not “A Christmas Story.”
“Theater artists are obsessed with and good at controlling exactly what happens within the four walls of a theater,” says Torrence. “In this case, the reality of the outside world encroached upon that. My curiosity in the Iroquois Theatre fire started as an interest in understanding what the performers must have felt about this horrific thing that occurred during their show. There are tons of testimonies from audience members who survived the tragedy. There are fewer documents that give insight into what the performers experienced or learned from this tragedy.”
The show on stage that fateful day was “Mr. Bluebeard,” a now-forgotten British pantomime with elaborate sets and a huge cast, including a 13-year-old aerialist who swung over the audience tossing carnations. “Burning Bluebeard” imagines six of those long-gone artists emerging from the smoky past to complete the show the fire cut short. But this is not “The Walking Dead” in whiteface. Lively and engaging, the show is a delightful, if shadowed, spectacle. And for Torrence, it’s a musing on the unique communion of performer and spectator.
“This is a show about a show where people died while trying to watch a show,” he says. “In ‘Burning Bluebeard’ that relationship between audience and story is heightened. Anyone who comes into this theater to see our show is not only a part of the actual show, the event of the evening, just by sitting down, but they also assume the role of representing the actual people who attended the historical pantomime. And along with that comes all of the potential for joy and the sorrow and pain that echo through the seats of a theater.”
‘Burning Bluebeard’: Through Jan. 5, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. For tickets ($36-$50), call (773) 975-8150 or visit Theaterwit.org.