I fished this jacket I hadn’t worn since last winter out of storage the other day and found a pin in the inside pocket that said, in small black capitals, “MAGIC COTTON BALLS.” Many playgoers around town probably have one of these pins lying around too, waiting to remind them that perhaps our best, most unique Chicago theater tradition—The Ruffians’ annual production of Burning Bluebeard, now in its eighth year of holiday runs—is around the corner again. I got my pin as a postshow souvenir after last year’s mesmerizing blackbox production with the Neo-Futurists. This year, the show plays its first downtown venue, the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, with Porchlight Music Theatre.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call Burning Bluebeard, written by Jay Torrence, the most delightful work of theater there’s ever been about a mass death. In 1903, the old Iroquois Theater caught fire during a costly and elaborate staging of the play Mr. Bluebeard. (The line on my pin alludes to a sadly unfulfilled children’s giveaway offer that day, “half a cotton ball,” whatever that was supposed to mean.) Hundreds of people asphyxiated, burned, or were trampled. Torrence’s show imagines what two clowns, a stage manager, an actor, and an acrobat from the Mr. Bluebeard company would have done differently that day, if the unthinkable hadn’t happened.
But, surprise: smush two clowns, a stage manager, an actor, and an acrobat on stage together—let alone their scene-stealing otherworldly accomplice, the Faerie Queen (Crosby Sandoval), who lives inside a trunk—and what you get is liable to be a hundred times more joyous than a tragedy has any right to be. Think somersaults, pantomimes, Amy Winehouse karaoke. But then it gets sad again. Then joyous again. Then deeply sad. In clowning as in life, the reversals are the point.
Excitement sat thick over the room when I visited the Ruffians at the tail end of their rehearsal process. I asked director Halena Kays what it’s like to zero in on funny technical details—on reblocking a cartwheel, on making sure no one stomps too soon during the hambone—for a show so suffused with pain. “Joy is different than happiness,” she said. “Joy also comes from a depth of sadness, for me. It has to be in there to feel that sense of it.”
Torrence, who in addition to creating the piece also plays Robert Murray, the stage manager, believes his show is ultimately about hope. He drew attention to the discipline of clowning, with its built-in emotional seesaw, as context for his show’s blend of levity and tragedy. “Red-nose clowning is these highs and lows,” he said. “What do we do with horribleness?”
It’s the play’s obsession with technique—with “doing it right, this time,” as the comedian Eddie Foy (Ryan Walters) puts it—that keeps hope alive. That doesn’t change in its new staging, with its larger scope. A glorious singed colonnade, designed by Jeff Kmiec, now looms upstage; the actors talk to the Ruth Page’s real balcony for the heaviest scenes, those that address the fictional, doomed cheap seats at the Iroquois, which were the first to burn.
There is a small sense of lost magic, now that so much less of the play’s world is on you to imagine in the mind’s eye. Torrence told me that Burning Bluebeard was once performed at a flea market in Berlin, Ohio, Torrence’s hometown, inside an Amish barn, and in a way that scale suits the play better than its new one does. The upshot is a kind of charming bashfulness, like a kid in a too-big suit, which may wear off as the run continues. A big house does mean no buttons this year, sadly. (No, you can’t have mine.)
All gussied up, the play still lives and dies by its celebration of technical brilliance—I would trade all the proscenium stages in America for one pout, one perfectly-timed tilt of the eyebrow, from the great Pamela Chermansky, who plays Fancy Clown. I was reminded, watching her work, of something Chermansky said to me in rehearsal: “The audience is the partner with a clown.”
“By the way,” she added, after I told the cast about rediscovering my magic cotton ball pin, “have you ever looked really carefully at the side of the button?” I dug mine out for a closer inspection. In fine print along the metal edge, as if a fairy put it there without me knowing, it read: “NOT A WHOLE ONE, JUST A HALF.” v