By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It’s playful, it’s dark, it’s magical. Dave Horak’s production of Burning Bluebeard is back on the Roxy stage. And what a strange and wonderful Christmas show it is. You won’t see anything like it anywhere. I fell for it when it arrived in 2015 and I loved it all over again this time out.
Funny how a show about a devastating fire — the 1903 blaze that destroyed Chicago’s snazzy new Iroquois Theatre and killed 600 members of the audience during a sold-out matinee of a holiday panto — is a love letter to theatre. But that’s what Burning Bluebeard is.
The smudged and ghostly clowns who emerge from the ashes of the past, and come to life with a macabre store of one-liners about “the hottest show in town,” want to finish the show and find the happy ending history denied them. Their spectacular failure to provide it on the fateful day haunts them still.
“A good show shouldn’t kill you to see it,” as the stage manager (John Ullyatt) says. It’s not as if they were getting great reviews, as he ruefully acknowledges, quoting one account of the time: “upstaged by their own scenery.” That morbid irony isn’t lost on them; moonlight, a spark from the lovely panto moon hanging in the sky at the top of Act II (along with 400 tinder-dry set pieces), set the whole thing off.
The story of a king who murders a whole bunch of wives? Well, Mr. Bluebeard isn’t exactly Babes in Toyland, as they grimly joke. In true actorly fashion the the earnest young actor (Braydon Dowler-Coltman) who plays Bluebeard says “I like to think he’s misunderstood.”
It’s this distinctive mixture of horror and comedy, affectionate theatre jokes and poignance that sets Burning Bluebeard apart. A histrionic and worldly harlequin (the terrific Amber Lewis) presides over the conjuring of their show, glimpses in moments. Jay Torrence, the Chicago actor/playwright who created Burning Bluebeard originally for his company The Neo-Futurists, calls it “a collapsed panto,” a panto within a panto, comedy sliding into tragedy.
Horak’s cast is an ensemble of real excellence. As the troubled stage manager Ullyatt delivers the most mesmerizing lip-synch (of Amy Winehouse’s Rehab) you might ever see. As the turn-of-the-century vaudeville star Eddie Foy, Vincent Forcier is funny and heartbreaking. So is Dowler-Coltman. So is Stephanie Wolfe as the fairy aerialist, a down-to-earth out-of-town gal who dreams of flight and magic.
And as the Fairy Queen, who dispenses moonlight in sealer jars, Brooke Leifso, the newest addition to Horak’s cast, is a find: a tiny, sweetly odd urchin in serious glasses, a grimacing smile, and a low irritation threshhold. Richelle Thoreson’s choreography taps into the breezy easy way the performers pepper the period with blithe anachronisms.
Scott Peters’ design (beautifully lit by him) is a theatre haunting all on its own, the charred remains of a place echoing with lost voices, words, poetry.
In its own weird, extreme, and touching way, Burning Bluebeard is about the unspoken contract of the theatrical illusion, the conjuring turn that connects theatre artists feel with their audiences. “We wanted to make moonlight for you,” they tell us. “It was supposed to be beautiful.” The Harlequin is more direct. “I wanted a story that the audience would remember forever.”
And they have succeeded.
Theatre: Edmonton Actors Theatre
Directed by: Dave Horak
Starring: Amber Lewis, Brooke Leifso, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Vincent Forcier, John Ullyatt, Stephanie Wolfe
Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: through Dec 23
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatre network.ca