Finding hope within a tragedy in Burning Bluebeard

A box with a leg reaching out of it.

Burning Bluebeard at The Roxy on Gateway. Photo credit Nanc Price.

While a pantomime about a fire in a theatre that killed more than 600 people (mostly children) doesn’t seem like the best situation to go into with the goal of coming out feeling hopeful and imbued with the holiday spirit, it’s true that it’s easiest to uncover the hopefulness when you’re faced with darkness.

Such is the case with Burning Bluebeard, which Edmonton Actors Theatre returns to the Roxy on Gateway’s stage for the third time. Playing until December 23, Burning Bluebeard is the perfect holiday show for those who enjoy the holidays is at the periphery of a story.

Burning Bluebeard tells the tale of a Christmas pantomime performance of Mr. Bluebeard at Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre gone horribly wrong. Not that it would have gone well even if the theatre hadn’t caught on fire – the reviews at the time were mixed, and really, it was a racist show for children about a man who murders his wives. But, what rises to the top of Burning Bluebeard is how deeply the performers want to create something wonderful for the audience, something the audience remembers for the rest of their long lives because it was magical. It’s the same hope every creative person shares at the outset of a project, regardless of how many times similar projects have gone off the rails before. It’s that hearty “the show must go on” mentality theatre performers are known for. It’s the hope that tonight the show will reach its beautiful conclusion, the theatre won’t burn down, and the audience will leave their seats and go home with a song in their head and a smile on their face.

Six clowns looking standing around looking.

Burning Bluebeard at The Roxy on Gateway. Photo credit Nanc Price.

The cast is primarily made of the show’s Edmonton alumni over the past two years. Braydon Dowler-Coltman returns as Henry Gilfoil, whose sensitive approach to the villain Bluebeard is indicative of the larger theme of the show – evil and darkness exist so that light can shine through. Vincent Forcier’s portrayal of vaudevillian star Eddie Foy is pure show business and appropriately reflective on Eddie’s choice to calm the audience and have them stay in their seats as the fire started burning instead of encouraging them to leave the theatre. While this act was lauded as heroic at the time, an interview with playwright Jay Torrence in the playbill notes Eddie denied calming the audience later in court. Vincent’s portrayal of Eddie hints at a lack of pride in his actions.

In the role of Fancy Clown, Amber Lewis is simultaneously costumed the most like a traditional clown, as well as the character that takes their art the most seriously. Fancy Clown knows the power of theatre and art and approaches the job of transporting the audience to another place and time with passion. Stephanie Wolfe as Nellie Reed the Fairy Aerialist is equally as passionate as Fancy Clown, but how her art transforms the audience is a little easier to understand. In the 1903 production of Mr. Bluebeard, there were over 400 cast members, but she alone is able to do the death-defying drop from above the audience that transforms children’s terror to delight.

Perhaps easiest to relate to is John Ullyatt in the role of Robert Murray the stage manager. In the 1903 fire, Robert Murray’s actions saved most of the cast and crew from the fire by helping them escape the theatre. His one wish of the Faerie Queen is for no one to die – as it should be when one attends a theatre show. But in 1903, the Iroquois Theatre was able to operate despite its construction and operating procedures (like locking the doors from the outside during the show) being incredibly dangerous. The clearly visible exit signs presiding over the playing space are a strong reminder of the positive outcome of tragedies caused by fires such as the one at the Iroquois Theatre. While John plays the role of Robert for most of the run, Director Dave Horak will be taking to the stage in this role December 19 – 23.

The newest cast member, Brooke Leifso takes to the stage as the Faerie Queen, a role originated in Edmonton by Richelle Thoreson. While I felt Richelle’s portrayal of the Faerie Queen was mysterious, Brooke’s take on the role has the Faerie Queen as playful and encouraging, with this sense coming through in the choreography of not just the Faerie Queen, but also the other cast members.

The final character is one that I’d be remiss not to mention. Only in the production for about 60 seconds, Jay Torrence and Mike Tuaj’s sound design near the end of the show communicates more about the true horror of the fire than the most elaborate production ever could. In this case, theatre of the mind reigns supreme – it’s an experience you have to have for yourself.

With all the hopefulness of a holiday show wrapped in a tragedy, Burning Bluebeard is perfect for this time of year – and Director Dave Horak says this is likely the last year you’ll have a chance to catch it in Edmonton. Burning Bluebeard plays at The Roxy on Gateway until December 23. Tickets are $18 – $22 through Theatre Network’s website. Tickets on Tuesday, December 19 are two-for-one.

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