Almost a year after the fire that destroyed The Roxy Theatre, we find ourselves walking into The Roxy on Gateway, checking out the charred set, which includes a piece of one of the former Roxy Theatre’s walls, as smoke hovers in the air. This is Burning Bluebeard, a show that Bradley Moss said was “a little too appropriate – I couldn’t say no,” when he was planning Theatre Network’s Season 41.
I’d have to agree that the show is completely appropriate for the December slot of Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series. Watching Burning Bluebeard is not only cathartic but also makes you grateful that a building was all we lost, unlike the 600 audience members who died in the real theatre fire Burning Bluebeard is based on, which happened at Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre in 1903.
Burning Bluebeard is Edmonton Actors Theatre’s Canadian première of Jay Torrence’s homage to the audience, cast, and crew involved in the deadly Iroquois Theatre fire. The show runs until December 13 at The Roxy on Gateway.
Burning Bluebeard is an apologetic eulogy to the Iroquois Theatre that’s also applicable to all theatres that have burnt down, including our Roxy Theatre. In Burning Bluebeard, we join three clowns/vaudeville comedians, an aerialist, and a stage manager in the burnt remains of the Iroquois Theatre as they pray they will receive a visit from the Faerie Queen that will help them finally get all the way through their Christmas pantomime of Mr. Bluebeard without killing any audience members. Their wish is granted, and the Faerie Queen guides the actors through scenes from Mr. Bluebeard they must get right if they’re going to succeed in their goal. In between the scenes from the pantomime, we get to meet each actor individually and learn about their experience as part of the cast and crew of Mr. Bluebeard and how they remember their actions during the fire.
Burning Bluebeard makes no bones about being a metatheatrical piece through the ‘play within a play’ storyline. Woven throughout the script are countless theatre jokes and references that go over very well amongst the theatre folk in the audience, and that those audience members who attend theatre less often can still appreciate.
Leading us through the narrative is Toy Guns Dance Theatre co-founder and Executive Director Richelle Thoreson in the role of the Faerie Queen. Richelle is perfect for this part and perfectly embodies the delicate, graceful qualities you’d expect from a faerie queen through movement inspired by ballet or contemporary dance. While her character is mostly mute, Richelle’s performance drives the story forward through physical storytelling techniques and exaggerated gestures that play well off of the movement styles that the clowns and comedians (Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Vincent Forcier, and Amber Lewis) use in their performances.
When we meet the troupe at the beginning of the play, they are clearly still shaken up from the fire they survived while a third of the audience perished. This is perhaps the most cathartic section of the play, accomplished mostly through the excellent fire-related jokes (‘It’s a hot show’ and ‘Sure to bring the house down’ are two of my favourites), combined with occasional interruptions from the terrified actors, whenever the subject of fire is lingered on for too long. One of my favourite parts was how well the clown style of the show worked in this section, with the clown training of the actors within the play leading to comical exaggerations of their terror. Of course, these exaggerated expressions of fear are funny, but they also underline the guilt and responsibility the actors feel for the death of the audience. The entire cast, but especially John Ullyatt ( in the role of stage manager Robert Murray) and Stephanie Wolfe (Nellie Reed the Fairy Aerialist), did a great job of escalating their character’s nervous ticks and physical energy into a panicked frenzy whenever the subject of the fire came up.
I’m sure most Edmonton audiences would agree that one of the most touching parts of the show was near the beginning when the characters are talking about what theatre truly is, and what the loss of one means. They discuss how theatres aren’t just buildings, they’re spaces filled with the words of past plays, still echoing throughout the floorboards and walls of the space. While this section is short, it was very touching and brought up a lot of memories of the days following the fire. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d say the script was pulling directly from the conversations following the fire at the Roxy.
Under the guidance of the Faerie Queen, Burning Bluebeard soon ventures into the bulk of the show – the excerpts from Mr. Bluebeard as well as the vignettes about each of the actors. Once the Faerie Queen had determined what Mr. Bluebeard scene she wanted them to act out, Fancy Clown, played by Amber Lewis, took over in the role of the director of the play-within-a-play. I loved the precise enunciation Amber used, along with her British accent and ultra stiff posture to bring this role to life and can’t envision a more appropriate portrayal of a clown directing a show. Through Fancy Clown, we really get to see one of the hearts of what this show questions – how we’re remembered or what we’re known for. For these performers, what they’re known for is surviving a fire that killed 600 audience members. And they feel that they deserve that reputation, but a small part of them – and a larger part of Fancy Clown – wants to be remembered for their artistry, but they’re immortalized in an admittedly ‘not very good’ pantomime.
While Fancy Clown is obsessed and analytical with how she’ll be remembered, John Ullyatt’s character, Robert Murray the Stage Manager, is as well, to hilarious effect. All I’ll say is that I can’t imagine anyone else being able to pull off the lip-synced version of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” the way John does.
As part of reconciling this idea of what they’re being remembered for, Braydon Dowler-Coltman (in the role of actor Henry Gilfoil, who plays Bluebeard) talks to Fancy Clown about his character and about seeing the good in even his evil character. Through Henry Gilfoil’s thought process about finding a glimmer of light in a tragedy, we’re reminded that the Iroquois Theatre fire was a catalyst for the fire regulations we see enacted in every public building today, even the Roxy on Gateway, where the door between the theatre and the lobby is unobstructed by any curtains, with the glowing red exit signage a haunting reminder of the tragedy it took for us to have these modern safety features.
While shining individually, the cast also made a great ensemble – director Dave Horak’s casting was spot on. I particularly loved how each actor clearly has some sort of physical training or experience – in a clown show like this, the heightened sense of precise physicality really adds to the overall sense of the show as a spectacle. The grace and control with which the actors move their bodies, even through the strange contortions or slapstick comedy that references the original pantomime show this is based on.
As we arrive at the climax of the show, we viscerally realize the true horror of the Iroquois Theatre fire through excellent sound design by Jay Torrence (also the playwright) & Mike Tuaj of Chicago’s The Neo-Futurists. Jay and Mike have created a soundscape that aurally embodies the audience participation elements woven into the script and demonstrates the power sound design can have. I’m not going to spoil it for you by describing the sound design further, but it’s definitely something you need to experience for yourself while the show runs in Edmonton.
Burning Bluebeard runs at The Roxy on Gateway (8529 Gateway Boulevard) until December 13 and while it’s not the Christmas show you might be craving for the holiday season (and there are plenty of those around right now), Burning Bluebeard is a touching ode to the audience, cast and crew involved in the Iroquois Theatre fire, a cathartic way to remember the theatre Edmonton lost almost a year ago and a reminder to be thankful that all we lost was a building and its contents, not any lives. Tickets are $21 through Theatre Network or Tix on the Square.