A few days after Christmas 1903, during a matinee performance of the extravagant holiday panto Mr. Bluebeard at the brand-new, “absolutely fireproof” Iroquois Theatre in Chicago’s Loop, a faulty electrical instrument sparked against a piece of scenery in the fly space. What resulted was the worst loss of life ever seen in a theater; 600 audience members, most of them women and children, perished in the conflagration. “The building was fireproof,” says a vaguely sinister clown in the Neo-Futurists’ blistering excavation of the disaster. “Its contents weren’t.”
In the Neos’ Bluebeard, alternately wistful, sidesplitting and chill-inducing, six lightly singed members of Mr. Bluebeard’s company engage us as though we’re the Iroquois audience on that fateful December day. Their goal: to erase the tragedy by successfully completing the performance without going up in flames. Jay Torrence’s blazing breakdown of events cheekily blends moods and periods, opening with a creepy children’s-choir rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—and later employing a ridiculously evocative mash-up of John Lennon, Amy Winehouse and Swedish House Mafia.
Under Halena Kays’s measured direction, the gags and dance numbers serve as a welcome balance to the horrific facts. The performers, including Torrence as a guilt-wracked stage manager, Ryan Walters as beloved stage comic Eddie Foy and Molly Plunk as a gangly, silent Faerie Queen, convey real regret in their doomed attempts at changing history. Even magnificent weirdo Dean Evans, who seems to represent the inevitability of entropy as that menacing clown, finds an unexpected note of sorrow at the climactic moment, when Kays and sound designer Mike Tutaj effectively summon a taste of the day’s real terror.