Culture Magazine

Review: Burning Bluebeard (Neo-Futurists)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat

Leah Urzendowski Chicago   
Burning Bluebeard 

Written by Jay Torrence  
Directed by Halena Kays
at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland (map)
thru Dec 30  |  tickets: $10-$20   |  more info

Check for half-price tickets 
   Read entire review



The Neo-Futurists create a unique and touching holiday experience


Jay Torrence, Dean Evans, Leah Urzendowski, Ryan Walters, Molly Plunk


The Neo-Futurists presents


Burning Bluebeard

Review by J.H. Palmer

Jay Torrence’s beautiful play explores the events and the memories of December 30, 1903 at the Iroquois Theatre on Randolph Street, where 600 people died during a matinee performance of Mr. Bluebeard, a Christmas play. The cast of six are each credited simply as “performer” in the playbill, but play distinct roles. Ethereal music plays at the start of the piece, and it takes a moment to realize it’s a cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sung by women, or possibly by children. The show’s playwright makes his entrance onto the stage and introduces the audience to the story in gorgeous, poetic dialogue; empty theaters, we are told, have a “history of words hanging in the air”. In the days after the 1903 disaster, the mayor ordered all theaters in Chicago closed for six weeks, and fire codes were put into effect around the country.

Ryan Walters Chicago
What we think are garbage bags scattered across the stage come to life, arms and bodies of actors emerging from them to the tune of the band Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” to comedic effect. The actors are soot-smudged from the fire, and begin describing the events of the December 30 performance with gallows humor. They remind us that we are an audience watching a show about an audience that died, and that Mr. Bluebeard was possibly the unlikeliest of Christmas shows – it brought to life the mythical story of Bluebeard, who killed several wives and kept them in a special chamber which he forbade his current wife from entering. Naturally, curiosity got the best of her and she opened the door (with the key that she was entrusted with and told to never use) to find the bodies of her predecessors hanging on bloody hooks. Angered by her disobedience, Bluebeard prepares to kill her too, but at the last moment she is saved by her brothers. Not exactly the visions of sugarplums that we typically associate with Christmas plays, but somehow this was staged as a holiday spectacular that drew an oversold crowd, comprised largely of women and children, in December of 1903.

Each character’s voice is distinct. Dean Evans’ character has a wit and comportment that put me in the mind of David Hyde Pierce in his delivery of lines like: “sounds like you got the thesaurus for well-educated stagehands from the early 20th century.” Anthony Courser and Ryan Walters each have moments that reminded me of Jack McBrayer’s interpretation of Kenneth Parcell on the television series “30 Rock,” and there are moments of collective wit throughout the piece that couldn’t be sharper.

Humor is expertly woven into the fabric of the story along with expressions of vulnerability, such as when Leah Rose Urzendowski expounds on the wonders of performing as an aerialist, and when bell jars lit from within by strings of holiday lights are handed from the actors to audience members as representations of the actors themselves. Light is an unaccredited seventh performer in this play; it is the faulty wiring of the stage moon that is responsible for the fire, and the house lights – antique looking bulbs that hang from the ceiling – are used to dramatic effect.

Toward the end of the play the performers describe, in beautiful and heartbreaking terms, the events of December 30, 1903, ending in a moment that transports the audience to the Iroquois Theatre on that fateful night; when the house lights come up, audible sniffles can be heard in the audience. This is a holiday story unlike any other: it is performed in a way that is equal parts reverent and irreverent; it is part of our history as Chicagoans, as theatergoers, and as human beings. The final performance of this show will take place on December 30 – the 108th year anniversary of the Iroquois fire; I can’t think of a more fitting end date for this unusual and lyrical play.


Rating: ★★★★



Burning Bluebeard continues through December 30th at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland (map), with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm.  Tickets are $10-$20 (with pay-what-you-can Thursdays), and can be purchased online.  More information at  (Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission)

Ryan Walters - Blue Beard - Neo-Futurists

All photos by Evan Hanover and Maggie Fullilove-Nugent


Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog