Arts Theatre

Burning Bluebeard balances balance delightful impishness with disquieting revelations


Too soon it might be, but there’s something cathartic in reliving tragedy.

The Edmonton theatre community was devastated by the loss of the Roxy Theatre to an overnight fire in early January. It’s only fitting, then—albeit in a gallows humour-type way—that Theatre Network would cap off the year with a play about a theatre fire.

In 1903, right around this time of year, the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago went up in flames and killed over 600 people—all of them audience members except for one: a high-flying aerialist who couldn’t get out of her harness in time. The fire, which is both the deadliest theatre and single-building fire in US history, inspired Chicago playwright Jay Torrence to pen Burning Bluebeard, a script that’s become a macabre Christmas tradition in his hometown.

Categorically, this show is a difficult one to slot. Burning Bluebeard fuses elements of clowning and vaudeville, movement and dance. The entirety of the show occurs in the burned-out husk of the Iroquois, where we meet a group of six ragtag performers who were part of the ill-fated production. They each take a turn to relive their personal experience of the events of that day, interwoven with a brief recounting of their lives leading up to it. Handily dismantling the fourth wall in short order, they ruefully remind the audience about the meta-ness of this situation: watching a play about a theatre fire in a theatre.

Being based on and told by the victims of a truly terrible event, this show is certainly set up with the potential for being a bleak affair. But Burning Bluebeard couldn’t be more opposite:  captivating and charming, the performers balance delightful impishness with disquieting revelations. The tone veers from irreverence to reverential within the span of a song. The score is particularly notable and used very well for this purpose: a genre-bending and time-period-hopping mashup that, along with the peppering of contemporary references, displaces these ghosts from their time. It’s a useful device for adding relevance to a play rooted in a time and place far removed from present-day Edmonton.

Perhaps most remarkable about this production is its ability to maintain an air of intrigue and mystery despite us all knowing exactly what happened. There’s an uneasiness beneath the characters’ taunting, a sense of playing with fate that contributes a looming ominousness to the proceedings. Perhaps that was heightened by the fire-ravaged remnants of the Roxy’s old sign in the theatre lobby, or maybe it’s just a testament to the intrigue of the production. Either way, it’s a wonderfully alternative take on the usual Christmastime drama.

Until Sun, Dec 13 (8 pm; Sunday matinees at 2 pm)
Directed by Dave Horak
The Roxy on Gateway
(formerly C103), $21

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