Dean Evans, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Ryan Walters, and Anthony Courser
Dean Evans, Jay Torrence, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Ryan Walters, and Anthony Courser Credit: Evan Hanover

On December 30, 1903, the Iroquois Theatre in downtown Chicago held a matinee performance of Mr. Bluebeard, a touring show about a potentate who murders his many wives and hangs them from hooks in a secret room. If the story line was gruesome, the production was fabulous—a holiday entertainment for the whole family, chock-full of extravagant scenery and costumes, elaborate musical numbers, swooping aerialists, and a cast of hundreds led by a major star of the era, Eddie Foy. In drag, no less.

What’s more, the theater itself was a draw. Only just opened, the Iroquois was considered the biggest, most opulent, and most advanced temple to Thespis yet devised.

It was also supposed to be absolutely fireproof, so when an overheated light sparked a blaze in the fly loft, Foy felt confident enough to stand onstage before an SRO audience of nearly 2,000 and advise them to remain in their seats while an asbestos curtain was lowered. Of course, the curtain got stuck. Then it burned. Then so did the people. About 600 died in what turned out to be a shoddily built, criminally managed death trap.

In Burning Bluebeard, the spirits of Foy and four other members of the 1903 Mr. Bluebeard company climb out of their body bags (though only one of them actually died in the fire) and enlist the aid of the Fairy Queen in finishing the performance that was cut short by all that horror. To say this 100-minute Ruffians show revisits the disaster doesn’t do it justice. No, Burning Bluebeard relives it. Then transcends it. Then so do we.

The rest is adjectives. Playwright/cast member Jay Torrence wisely leaves room in his sly, smart, often scathing script for the creativity of his wildly talented fellow artists—especially the charmingly unsettling Dean Evans—and they use it awfully well. Halena Kays‘s circusy staging makes acrobatic precision look easy. Simple motifs—among them, jars full of what look like trapped fireflies—accrue power as the narrative discloses more and more of their meaning. And a single sound effect by Mike Tutaj is as overwhelmingly effective as the famous swirling glissando from the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”

Like Mr. Bluebeard itself, Burning Bluebeard is a delightful fantasia on an ugly crime. Unlike Mr. Bluebeard, it takes that crime and makes something profound of it. I’m sorry to think I missed this show in its first incarnation, at the Neo-Futurarium, in 2011. Please don’t you make that mistake this time around.