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Review: The Great Fire (Lookingglass Theatre)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat

     

Lindsey Noel Whiting as Fire in Lookingglas Theatre's 'The Great Fire,' written and directed by John Musial.  (photo credit: Sean Williams)

The Great Fire
 

Written and Directed by John Musial
Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan (map)
thru Nov 20  |  tickets: $30-$68   |  more info

Check for half-price tickets
  
  
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Lookingglass’ remount more intense, malevolent

     

A scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'The Great Fire,' written and directed by John Musial. (photo credit: Sean Williams)

  

Lookingglass Theatre presents

  

The Great Fire

Review by Catey Sullivan 

The flames have intensified since the first time Lookingglass Theatre tackled the great Chicago fire. With the company’s remount of John Musial’s 1999 piece The Great Fire, the blaze seems to have become more malevolent as it burns through the city with merciless democracy, reducing tenement shanties and luxury mansions alike to rubble, engulfing both indigent wanderers and captains of industry with a terrible, deadly

Lindsey Noel White and Cheryl Lynn Bruce in Lookingglass Theatre's 'The Great Fire,' written and directed by John Musial. (photo credit: Sean Williams)
beauty.

Back when the piece debuted, the fire was more ballet than burning, the actress playing the conflagration flitting across the stage sprinkling crimson petals in her wake. This time around, the fire has lost its delicacy. It is a storming bully, punching, kicking, slapping and grasping its victims in a death waltz that’s more straitjacket than embrace.

In directing The Great Fire, Musial brings a new urgency to the work, his kinetic, kaleidoscopic staging coinciding with the 140th anniversary of the 1871 blaze that leveled Chicago. While this is a history play to be sure, Musial’s theatrical mosaic captures the eternal spirit of the city. Through a cross section of immigrants and politicians, firemen and aldermen, orphans and O’Learys, The Great Fire shows a city forever on the make, even in the heated heart of an inferno.

At that heart is Lindsey Noel Whiting as the titular blaze. She’s a dervish of destruction, a compact but powerful presence that becomes more menacing as the 90-minute drama continues. Initially rosy and playful, her intensely physical performance grows into something of red, raging malevolence as the evening winds on. Leaping, climbing and whirling, she seems to be everywhere at once.

Drawing from the archival materials (diaries, letters, and newspaper clippings among them) of the Chicago Historical Society’s archives, Musial follows the fire’s impact on a disparate crew of Chicagoans. The ensemble doubles and sometimes triples up on roles, introducing a roster of scions and scallywags, including recent immigrant and newly widowed lithographer Julia Lemos (Stephanie Diaz), whose livelihood goes up in smoke (literally) when the building where she works ignites. Like the well-heeled Judge Lambert Tree (Troy West), Julia and her family flee toward the lake, eventually entering the October-cold waters in their attempt to outrun the flames. There is also the bloviating Mayor Roswell Mason, (Thomas J.Cox) and the opportunistic Alderman Hildreth (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), the former ineffectually railing while the town burns, the latter turning the fire into a windfall of predatory free-enterprise. Among the other memorable characters are Tree family servant Frenchy (Kevin Douglas), and the doomed John Tolland (Cox), the sole watchman of the offshore wooden “water crib” that filtered the city’s water supply. Alone out on the lake, his valiant, losing battle against a rain of deadly embers provides some of The Great Fire’s most moving moments.

Cheryl Lynn Bruce and Troy West in Lookingglass Theatre's 'The Great Fire,' written and directed by John Musial. (photo credit: Sean Williams)
Cheryl Lynn Bruce and Kevin Douglas in Lookingglass Theatre's 'The Great Fire,' written and directed by John Musial. (photo credit: Sean Williams)

Lindsey Noel Whiting as Fire in Lookingglas Theatre's 'The Great Fire,' written and directed by John Musial.  (photo credit: Sean Williams)

Surprisingly, The Great Fire is not without humor. There’s the inevitable laughter of recognition as the greedy Alderman Hildreth oils the machinery of his dubious business deals and at the sputtering, shouting inability of the mayor to articulate his thoughts properly. There’s also a hilarious puppet show, as Diaz presents Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet as a pair of Punch-and-Judy style knuckleheads.

But the real force of The Great Fire comes, as it should, with the destruction of the fire itself. John Dalton’s set takes a thrillingly brutal pounding during the course of the production, at several points so much so those in the front row might fear for their safety. Not to worry of course. It’s all just a marvelously effective illusion.

  

Rating: ★★★

  

A scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'The Great Fire,' written and directed by John Musial. (photo credit: Sean Williams)

The Great Fire continues through November 20th at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Avenue (map), with performances Wednesdays and Fridays at 7:30pm, Thursdays at 3pm and 7:30pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 3:00pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $30-$68, and can be purchased by phone (312-337-0665) or online at LookingGlassTheatre.org. Check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com

All photos by Sean Williams 


     

artists

cast

Thomas J. Cox*, Kevin Douglas*, Troy West*, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Stephanie Diaz, Lindsey Noel Whiting, Gary Wingert

behind the scenes

John Musial (playwright, director); John Dalton (scenic); Alison Siple* (costumes); Mike Durst (lighting); Josh Horvath* and Ray Nardelli* (sound); Eric Huffman (original music); Joel Lambie (props); Kathleen E. Petroziello (stage manager); Sean Williams (photos)

* denotes Lookingglass ensemble, affiliate, associate


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