Everyone remembers the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which burned through 17,500 buildings in three days. But who remembers the Iroquois Theatre Fire three decades later, which killed twice as many in a flash, efficiently roasting more than 600 theater patrons in a single afternoon, not even sparing the teenage ballerina dangling from a wire? If it’s the lesser known fire for lack of songs, rest easy, because the Neo-Futurists and the Ruffians have it covered. Burning Bluebeard, written by Jay Torrence and directed by Halena Kays, returns for a seventh year to commemorate this gruesome disaster with music, dancing, clowning, and acrobatics.
“I had written a play about a tragic circus train wreck for the Neo-Futurists, and I was intrigued by the idea of performers attempting to create something beautiful in the world and then the world coming and making a story out of them,” says Torrence. Captivated by a “painfully lovely” image of Nellie Reed, the 13-year-old flower-tossing aerialist who died of her injuries, Torrence envisions the theater reanimated by the ghosts of the original performers. Like the heroine of the fairytale “Bluebeard,” they are irresistibly drawn to the site of a tragedy—yet, he insists, with optimism: “My characters enter the Iroquois Theatre again. Every time they do, they’re trying to get to a happy ending. We’re hoping there’s an ending where people don’t die, but every night we have to tell the truth. Through that we try to find some semblance of hope.” v