Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change.” —Milton Friedman
In her 2007 exposé, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein argues that economist Milton Friedman and his Chicago school acolytes carried the torch for “disaster capitalism”—the notion that really awful events like wars and tsunamis are actually golden opportunities for the true free-marketeer. Lookingglass Theatre’s The Great Fire suggests that the match for that torch was lit one unseasonably warm October night in 1871.
First staged in 1999, John Musial’s uneven but often provocative look at the Great Chicago Fire is getting a remount in the unimpeachably appropriate setting of the company’s theater at the Water Tower Pumping Station. (The fact that the station’s wooden roof collapsed during the conflagration is just one of many piquant pieces of information studded throughout the script.) As the city burns, Musial draws our attention to the prairie Neros who played the catastrophe like a Stradivarius for maximum advantage.
Chief among them is alderman James Hildreth, who commandeered gunpowder in order to set off a firebreak around State and Harrison and preserve his own fiefdom. As played with robust comic aplomb by Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Hildreth is the very model of a modern majordomo, noting that “there’s nothing like confusion to expedite red tape.”
Chicago-centric anachronisms—like Hildreth’s prediction that the “will to build a major TIF district” will prevail after the fire—provide plenty of inside-baseball (or 16-inch softball) delights. At one point Thomas Cox’s operatically foulmouthed Mayor Rahm, er, Roswell Mason screams about the “flaming turd sandwich” he’s inherited from his fiscally imprudent predecessor.
But Musial’s script also offers a counternarrative of the fire as a sort of anti-Katrina—an event that momentarily erased class distinctions—by juxtaposing the flight of the poor immigrant Lemos family and that of wealthy Judge Arthur Tree. True, the former get away with only the clothes on their backs while the latter carries out a bagful of money and stocks. But when the flames are nipping at your heels, that seems like a distinction without difference. Of course, the city’s appetite for xenophobic scapegoating is evident in the ease with which the O’Leary family is blamed for causing the fire in the first place. As Gary Wingert’s crusty fire marshal reminds us, the O’Learys live among the “ditchdiggers and cabbage-eaters—you know, Irish.”
Flame-haired Lindsey Noel Whiting personifies the fire. Looking like a malevolent Pippi Longstocking, she tosses handfuls of red confetti around the heads of the victims and occasionally shinnies up the water pipes that flank John Dalton’s set to snip the wires holding fragile birdhouses representing Chicago landmarks lost to the flames. In one inspired movement interlude, Whiting rolls across a prostrate line of victims to suggest the unimaginable flattening effect of the fire, which wiped out all but a handful of buildings in its four-mile wake.
Although the fire is given human form, the humanity of the story too often gets lost. Despite strong performances—especially by Stephanie Diaz as plucky Mrs. Lemos—we don’t spend enough time with the people fleeing the blaze to fully invest in their survival.
Musial seems more interested in creating smarty-pants vignettes, such as a puppet show in which Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet battle Punch-and-Judy-style over Chicago’s future. (Essentially, it’s a choice between the communitarian and Where’s mine? models.) But the show shies away from the human loss of the fire, which left 300 dead—and makes no mention at all of the thousands killed in the less well-known forest fire that swept through Peshtigo, Wisconsin, on October 8, 1871, just as the Chicago disaster was getting underway.
Curiously, The Great Fire lacks the design pyrotechnics I’ve come to expect from Lookingglass in general and Musial in particular. The films he made to accompany his 2001 Nelson Algren: For Keeps and a Single Day delivered a gorgeous, gritty visual love letter to the city. Here, the rain that finally puts out the horrible blaze comes down in a weak, anticlimactic drizzle, and neither the falling birdhouses nor a collapsing wall of file boxes adequately conveys the devastation.
Musial strongly implies that a battle for the soul of Chicago came into sharp focus against the backdrop of the Great Fire. But that focus is lacking in The Great Fire. The show fails to generate the heat of human perfidy and nobility that gave rise to the city we love—and curse —today.