October 3, 2011
As Chicago burns in the Lookingglass Theatre's "The Great Fire," John Musial's inflammatory theatrical collage about the events of Sunday Oct. 8, 1871, a little clutch of rich Chicagoans stares out at the inferno.
"I predict we will be rebuilding a city," says one, licking his lips like Nucky Thompson of "Boardwalk Empire," "and where there is confusion, there is money to be made."
Fair enough, to a point. History reveals that Chicagoans have frequently made money from confusion. No city has better harnessed self-interest to civic good. And one of the paradoxes about the Chicago Fire — assuming you weren't one of the 300 or so souls who perished or the tens of thousands more without the wherewithal to rebuild — is that it precipitated a dynamic renewal of an incomparable American city, second, as we like to say, only to itself. The day after the fire, you could believe this mercurial little scene.
But even as the business district burned? Come on! Surely, even the most self-involved Chicagoan was preoccupied with wading out into Lake Michigan, or walking through the heat to the safety of the prairie (which meant heading north of Fullerton Avenue), and generally avoiding becoming a piece of Midwestern toast.
Musial, the very creative writer and director of this piece, has forged an often-fascinating 90-minute performance piece stuffed with facts and questions about the fire — of great interest to those of us obsessed with Chicago history and the forging of its civic identity, not to mention an interesting choice for visitors to the Magnificent Mile. But even though this is a remount and expansion of a piece first seen in 1999 (when I also saw it), Musial still has not figured out what he really wants to say about "The Great Fire," nor the manner in which he wants to say it.
Was this a story of greed and hubris? Of a city pulling together and forging an American miracle? A cautionary tale of the perils of wooden roofs and, yes, wooden streets? A moral fable? A comedy of errors?
Like most things in the history of Chicago, it was, in reality, many things at once. So you can see why Musial, who spent a lot of time looking at primary sources and accounts in the Chicago History Museum, throws out so much and uses so many different aesthetic conceits (seven solid actors, including Thomas J. Cox, Kevin Douglas and Stephanie Diaz, play a variety of roles). But the role of paradox in a historical event does not absolve an artist from coherently articulating some kind of point of view. Indeed, it only intensifies the need.
But here, all in the same restless, scattered mix-tape of a show, we're asked to emotionally feel the sacrifice of the fire department moments after we listen to a little Gilbert and Sullivan-style number that implies they were bumblers (not funny, really, given the timing). We're asked to embrace realistic scenes of family tragedy (and we do). But then, when one of the poor immigrant woman in the show hands over her kids to a orphanage — about as wrenching a thing as any mother could ever do — it's treated with a heavy comedic underpinning, including a role played by Troy West in drag. When you add a variety of anachronisms — including the narration by Gary Wingert's kinda-modern-day fireman, references to fire codes and current TIF controversies, and a portrait of the then-mayor, Roswell B. Mason, that's clearly forged with an eye toward the current holder of that office — it is hard to keep the rules of this proceeding straight. Some of the gags aren't worth the loss of believability. The coals burn hotter when Musial and his crew keep the flames real.
Even though the connections don't come with the clarity or coherence one craves, "The Great Fire" does smartly explore some individual, lesser-known truths about the disaster, including some discussion of how the single biggest reason why the so-called North Division could not be saved was the dumb idea of putting a wooden roof on the Water Tower Pumping Station: The stone building survived, but the burning timbers rendered the pumps inoperable. This truth is made all the more poignant by the show taking place inside that very building. On the way out Saturday night a lot of people were looking up at the roof.
Perchance they left with new respect for fire codes — and were maybe even pondering a trip to State and Harrison streets, where the southward sweep of the fire was halted by James Henry Hildreth (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), one of the first in a long line of Chicago's flawed aldermanic heroes. Paradox central, that City Hall.
The fire itself is played by Lindsey Noel Whiting, replete with fiery red hair. This is not as bad as it may sound — Whiting wisely underplays things and avoids flame-like movements in favor of showing up in a scene and, mostly, just staring people down. Actually, had all else been clearer, the fire-girl metaphor would have been easy to buy. Just as Mrs. O'Leary bought that famous kicking cow.
"The Great Fire" explores the case that this most infamous Chicagoan (Steve Bartman lives in the suburbs), was also a welfare cheat — although it also brings up the possibility that the much-maligned O'Leary may also have been a victim, like Chicago and maybe even Bartman, of a kind of spontaneous combustion. Either way, it was like a demon arrived in 1871 to conduct a forced garage sale.
With all the clutter removed in a matter of a few hours, an incomparable people were suddenly handed immediacy, opportunity, resources, civic purpose and, above all, a clean slate. Well, a few stains lingered. "The Great Fire" goes a long way toward explaining the way things are now.
When: Through Nov. 20
Where: Water Tower Pumping Station, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $30-$68 at 312-337-0665 or lookingglasstheatre.org
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