The Great Fire

Lookingglass Theatre Company

at About Face Theatre

By Adam Langer

The Great Chicago Fire began on October 8, 1871, and burned for almost two days, laying waste 2,200 acres of the city. Eighteen thousand buildings were destroyed. A third of the city’s population was left homeless, and nearly 300 people died as strong southwest winds urged the flames on and Chicago’s largely wooden dwellings were ravaged. Yet the severity of the disaster has been trivialized by kitsch mythology. Said to be the result of the errant hoof of a clumsy bovine and cynically credited with creating a blank slate for ambitious city planner Daniel Burnham and others, the ghastly conflagration is now the stuff of dioramas, classroom reports, and leaden lectures and reenactments.

Anyone trying to re-create the fire within the confines of a theater must be hoping to restore the terror, the immediacy, and the human cost of this legendary blaze. Of course, staging the fire and its aftermath would be tough, but then Shakespeare represented the battle of Agincourt on a bare stage and Broadway simulated the sinking of the Titanic. And Lookingglass Theatre Company and The Great Fire director-designer John Musial are up to this sort of challenge. Lookingglass has already created onstage spectacles for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Homer’s Odyssey, and the company will soon take on Italo Calvino’s brilliant but seemingly unstageable The Baron in the Trees. A couple years back, Musial even turned his apartment into a theater space for his production of Cocteau’s Les enfants terribles.

Stunning visuals are his forte. Giving him the Chicago Fire is like giving Frank Lloyd Wright a set of blocks or Harry Houdini handcuffs–the question is not whether he’ll be able to pull off the transformation, but how. The Great Fire’s arresting initial image recalls Musial’s stunning opener for Lookingglass’s adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, in which a miniature train puffed across the stage. Here a beautiful yet somehow sinister young woman in a white dress–the spirit of the fire–crouches above a model of a house made of white paper. She places a miniature cow beside it and produces a small can that makes a mooing sound when she turns it over. Then she pulls out a match and lights it; entranced by the flame, she lights another and another, until FOOM! The house vanishes in a flash of light. This witty, economical, and hypnotic image transports us into the horrific yet somehow magical particulars of the fire.

Musial’s visual effects are not the result of cheap theatrical wizardry or a knack for nifty tricks. Unlike designers who traffic in plummeting chandeliers and whirring helicopters, Musial creates images that serve thematic purposes. Red confetti falling like snow captures the airy insubstantiality of flames. A young man walks across a tightrope to try to save a burning building. Puppets are storytellers. Best of all is the way Musial and set designer John Dalton use the back of the stage. Seemingly sturdy shelves are stacked nearly to the ceiling, each lined with knickknacks, jugs, and books held together with ropes. To convey the power and extent of the fire, at certain key moments the shelves snap off as if by magic and fall thunderously to the ground, revealing images of fire and devastation behind them.

Significantly, Musial is credited as the director and “creator” of this show, for the writing fails to ignite: his talent seems to lie in the showing, not the telling. Four interwoven stories, either taken from or inspired by historical accounts, form the narrative core. An immigrant woman tries to care for her children and her aging parents as the fire blazes on. A young student of religion plays Good Samaritan, saving buildings and precious documents. Judge Lambert Tree not only rescues his belongings and his family but battles marauders as anarchy engulfs the city. Meanwhile, opportunists like the cigar-chomping Alderman Hildreth turn disaster to their advantage–Hildreth begins a demolition effort that he claims halts the blaze. All the while the spirit of the fire, clad in her white dress, keeps a close watch, alternately taunting, terrorizing, and comforting Chicago’s frightened citizens.

Interspersed among these tales are various snippets: a vaudeville song about the fire, an impassioned speech from Mrs. O’Leary’s son about how his mother was unfairly pilloried for her supposed part in the fire. Holding it all together is Fire Marshal Williams, who cites figures and points out locations on an 1871 map of Chicago, giving concise, detailed information about the fire. Musial has obviously done a fair amount of research on the ethnic composition of the city and the effects of the fire, but he leaves out some intriguing details. What mode of transportation did the fire department use? How was water diverted? How did the “three alarm” system work?

Such factual questions would be less distracting if the play had more dramatic impetus. But this ambitious work is so filled with shifts in tone, plot, character, and style that there’s precious little drama to keep questioning minds at bay. It’s possible that Musial’s shifting narrative–which surfs between impressionistic imagery, straightforward narration, cartoonish satire, and speeches directed to the audience–is intended to produce the alienating effects of Brecht’s work. But The Great Fire resembles Brecht only in style, not substance; there seems to be no political side to Musial’s play, only a surfeit of clashing elements.

And however compelling a spectacle these elements produce, they’re less than effective as drama. Musial’s scattershot approach doesn’t give the talented Lookingglass ensemble much opportunity to develop their roles beyond the surface. Seen mostly at times of crisis, these characters exhibit a laundry list of such emotional responses as fear, misery, pain, and anguish; they’re not individuals with specific characteristics. There’s also some odd gender flipping: Kim Leigh Smith plays Alderman Hildreth, while bearded Troy West counts among his characters a Mother Hubbard-like manager of an orphanage. Such choices further distance the audience from the human side of the disaster.

One moment in The Great Fire, near the end of the final act, is almost sublime. The fire is nearly quenched, and a rainstorm develops. Water pours down on the actors as they stand in a halolike light. This moment should deliver a sense of redemption, of divine rescue, of the renewing power of nature. But despite its beautiful design, ultimately the image fails to compel. The lives of the characters and the grievousness of their plights have not been developed enough to make this the deeply moving image it was intended to be. It serves largely as a reminder of what the play should have been.

The title encapsulates the play’s main difficulty: the fire is its most intriguing, mysterious, and multifaceted character. All others perish, reduced to ashes before its blazing, crackling omnipotence.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Great Fire theater still by David Catlin.