Jay Torrence, the playwright behind latest Neo-Futurist sensation, 'Burning Bluebeard'

December 14, 2011

“When I proposed it to the Neos, I said, ‘I want to do this horribly tragic story, but it’s really important to me that it’s not just sad.’ So there’s this innocence or openness—which sometimes dances really well with horrible things. It’s naivete, but it’s not complete idiocy.”

So says Jay Torrence about his second full-length play for the Neo-Futurists, Burning Bluebeard, telling the story of the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago. You know, the one you’ve never heard of that killed more than 600 people. Burning Bluebeard is closing December 30—the actual day of the fire—but a few weekday performances have been added to the run of this amazingly funny, buoyant production, directed by Halena Kays.

“I wanted to tell the story of the Iroquois fire,” says Torrence, “and I wanted to tell the fairytale story of Bluebeard, and then our version of the pantomime”—that is, Mr. Bluebeard, the comic panto running at the Iroquois when it caught fire during a matinee. Eventually, the playwright says, he had to let go of doing a traditional panto himself, though he did retain the characters of the villain (Bluebeard), the fairy queen, and the lovable old maid, often played by a man in drag—in this case "Eddie Foy," based on the real-life comedian who had a crucial role in the Iroquois disaster. Though originally Torrence planned not to perform, he plays the conscientious stage manager to perfection.

Torrence’s first Neo-Futurist play, in 2007, was Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck. Though it won two After Dark awards, he wasn’t setting out in Burning Bluebeard to re-create his success. “I get fascinated by historical events that involve performers or artists,” he says. “I kind of romanticize it.” 

“It’s easy to find out the story of what happened in the tragedy—but in both Roustabout and Bluebeard, it was hard to find stuff about the art the performers were making. Their individual life stories are lost, and their art is lost. I find that sad, and also beautiful—that the world, or history, made art out of them.”

In his research, Torrence discovered an online Mr. Bluebeard playbill that had “the act structure and all the songs they did. At the end of their show, all the wives [that Bluebeard killed] came back to life.” The program and a 1904 book of survivor eyewitness accounts—many of them contradictory—became his main sources as he tried to fill in the story’s plentiful blanks.

The most remarkable thing about Burning Bluebeard isn’t its historical accuracy, though—it’s Torrence’s handling of emotional tone as the play repeatedly careens from humor to pathos and back again.

An Ohio native who joined the Neo-Futurists when he came to Chicago in 2002, Torrence went back to school a few years ago, living in Vancouver while he got an MFA in creative writing. Blessedly for Chicago, he returned none the worse for wear. He even learned stuff, including how to avoid “narrative drone. You can be telling the story, but you need to break it up with a bit of dialogue or a moment of epiphany.”

“In Burning Bluebeard, I really fixated on giving these little emotional gifts to the audience.” He mentions the Amy Winehouse lip-sync scene (yes, there’s an Amy Winehouse scene). “We know this is odd and hopefully funny, so we insert that somewhere so that people can take a breath and relax. And then we take a step into something a little more heavy—beautiful, but heavy. The chair dance in the smoke tells a sad story, but it’s also beautiful to watch—that movement and that music are very moving. That is a gift of some sort.”

Crediting director Hays for her “collaborative voice,” Torrence says, “We rewrote that last section probably like seven times, trying to find what the audience might need in those moments as the show starts barreling to and through the fire—trying to be respectful of that really sensitive line of not milking our audience’s emotion, not manipulating them, letting them have whatever experience they’re having.”

The result, I have to say, is devastating.