Question: What do you get when you mix the macabre folk tale of a serial killer husband, the greatest theater fire in history, and Christmas? Answer: One of the most profound and moving theatrical events you are likely ever to see: Burning Bluebeard.
Since the late eighteenth century, English theaters had been offering a Christmas pantomime based on the seventeenth century tale of an ogre, Bluebeard, who secretly murders his wives and keeps the bloody remains in a hidden basement chamber. (Bluebeard was a precursor to H.H. Holmes, the serial killer Devil who plagued the 1893 Chicago Exposition’s White City.) The tale reached a climax when Bluebeard’s current wife, variously named Fatima or Judith, discovers her husband’s secret room of horror, only to be caught herself when her husband arrives home unexpectedly. She and her devoted sister, Anne, are only spared brutal murder by the arrival of their brothers, who save them by killing the evil brother-in-law. Bluebeard’s death thereby ushers in a period of peace and good will, as all of the dead wives are restored to life.
Until the modern age, the Bluebeard tale could be easily understood as an appropriate Christmas entertainment. The tale metaphorically echoed the story of Christ himself, whose incarnation and nativity the season celebrates. Death and corruption, the effects of the rule and reign of Satan (Bluebeard), were gaining a firmer hold on humans (Bluebeard’s castle). Christ came to earth (the sisters’ brothers arrive) to destroy death (Bluebeard), and raise the dead to a new life. Mr. Bluebeard, like Christmas itself, celebrated the arrival of the Savior, the immanent defeat of death itself, and the resurrection of the dead. (The Bluebeard for Christmas tradition continues, as the Opera national de Paris offers Le Chateau de Barbe-Bleue (Bluebeard’s Castle) by Bela Bartok for the season.)
In 1903 Chicago hosted the most spectacular Bluebeard pantomime yet. The play, a musical called Mr. Bluebeard, had premiered at London’s Drury Lane Theater and moved to New York in January, with most of the original cast. Parts of the script and songs were Americanized, but the drop scenery and lighting were original. The play had toured Cleveland and Indianapolis before arriving in Chicago to open the brand new Iroquois Theatre on November 23, the largest theater in the country, and billed as “fire-proof”, an attractive feature for fire-fearing Chicagoans..
At the Wednesday, December 30 matinee, the 1700 seat Iroquois Theatre, bursting with almost 2000 patrons and 500 players and stage hands, caught on fire early in the second act. The theater burned completely, killing almost 600 people, all but one ticket holders, most of whom were women and children.
News of the horror traveled around the world.
Survivors were haunted for the rest of their lives. Their Christmases could never be the same again.
In 2011 playwright Jay Torrence began workshopping an idea with fellow performers: what if the souls of a few of the surviving performers returned, on the anniversary of the fire, in order to finish the play, to provide the happy ending the audience had been cruelly denied: an act of “closure” for them, a memorial for those who perished. Through various incarnations the ensemble play, Burning Bluebeard, evolved in the manner of Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theatre and Jerzy Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre.
The six performing souls – Fancy Clown (Pamela Chermansky), Actor Henry Gilfoil/Bluebeard (Anthony Courser), Faerie Queen (Molly Plunk), aerialist Nellie Reed (Leah Urzendowski) the lone performer casualty, stage manager Robert Murry (Jay Torrance), and headliner Eddie Foy (Ryan Walters), gamely set off to play all of the 250 roles, as they recall the events of 112 years ago.
But, once again, images of fire, terror, and panic interrupt their efforts. Stage Manager Robert Murry concludes that their plan has once again failed. As a fatal aura of hopelessness begins to settle on the stage, the Faire Queen slowly emerges from the incense-like smoke, her crown-like moon (the fire had broken out as the song “In the Pale Moonlight’ was sung) ringed in light, a halo, seeming about to announce,
Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
Suddenly the rest of the actors are drawn to the Faerie Queen-angel, carrying gifts of light-bearing lanterns, offerings of celebration and remembrance.
The effort to provide a happy ending has, miraculously, been fulfilled, through the acknowledgement of the larger story of which Mr. Bluebeard is just a part – Christmas.
The Arrival of the Savior and the Victory of Life over Death provides the ultimate happy ending.
Burning Bluebeard is a matryoshka (Russian nesting doll) of a play:
Within the Hypocrites’ presentation of the Ruffian’s production of Mr. Torrence’s play entitled Burning Bluebeard, we find six actors attempting to finish what they started over a century ago; inside of which we find the Iroquois fire; within which we find the pantomime Mr. Bluebeard; within which we find the Christmas story, which stunningly completes the circle by finishing today in the Den Theatre what was started over a century ago in the Iroquois Theatre.
All of Burning Bluebeard’s actors are simply wonderful. Halena Kays, the director, with associate director Joseph Schupbach, and her design team of Lizzie Bracken (scene and properties), Maggie Fullilove-Nugent (lighting), Mike Tutaj (sound design), and Jessica Kuehnau Wardell (costume design) have lovingly accomplished an enormous feat with seeming ease: How to stage a play of multiple stories, multiple levels of reality (historic, poetic, metaphorical, spiritual), all interlocking and footnoting one another, set in no particular place, and at no particular time, carried out by nebulous agents of mysterious actions. It is exhausting just to read, let alone to actualize!
Burning Bluebeard reminds us what this season remembers and celebrates:
Remember Christ our savior
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
Burning Bluebeard offers some of most imaginative and profound “tidings of comfort and joy” available.
Don’t miss the Ruffians’ gift.
*Special thanks to Chicago’s Shaw Nigro for alerting us to this play!