By Christopher Borrelli, Tribune reporter
4:26 PM CDT, September 28, 2011
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is female. She has a mean smirk and pigtails. She weighs 100 pounds and stands roughly 5 feet tall. The Great Fire doesyoga and enjoys walks on the beach and lives in Ravenswood; when she's not training at the Actors Gymnasium in Evanston or taking dance classes or circus classes, she has an office management job at a physical therapy provider. The Great Fire is 30 years old and (here's some irony for you) when she was eight, growing up in South Elgin, there was a fire in the kitchen of the Great Fire's home and her family had to live in a trailer in the backyard for several months.
You say the last time you were in a play was fifth grade? And you played a tree? And it was hard?
Well, boo hoo. Consider Lindsey Noel Whiting's task.
In the Lookingglass Theatre Company's new production of "The Great Fire," its revival of ensemble member John Musial's 1999 play about Chicago's defining, slate-cleaning calamity, Whiting plays the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 itself. Or rather, as the program identifies her, "The Fire." She begins the play wearing a black petticoat and tinkering with a toy cow, presumably Mrs. O'Leary's infamous, fire-starting moo. But soon, she is quick and nasty, in a Victorian dress and dyed red hair, climbing scaffolding, tearing hats from actor's heads, stomping like an impetuous child before actors who represent the thousands of fleeing Chicagoans.
Frankly, she's a disaster.
Whiting, who has been performing since she was 10, has played stuff before – she was once a dancing house. Indeed, embodying concepts and objects is a fairly standard exercise for a young stage actor. Asked, though, if there were special challenges to being a disaster, she said, "It's not the same as having clear objectives. I talked with John (Musial). We spoke about control. The stage is like my house. I own it. I have different relationships to different characters — for instance, the fire thinks firefighters are fascinating. So I'll be like, 'Oh, adorable. I don't know why you're fighting me. I'm going to win. This is going to happen.'
"You know, I found it surprisingly easy to be a destructive force."
Of course, she gets a little help, to broaden the effect. Whiting flings around red swatches of fabric, which stand in for an endless rain of hot cinders. She sprinkles red glitter. There are red lights and smoke effects, too — Musial said he's considering adding projections of fire, "everything short of anything that looks cheesy."
Anything short of using actual fire.
See, the irony of staging the Great Fire in the city of the Great Fire, Musial explained, is that Chicago city ordinances "prohibit any open flame on stage without a fire curtain. Even lighting a match or a cigarette. So, how do you put fire on stage when the show is about fire? You can really only approach it metaphorically."
Also, you can drop a couple of funny, thinly-veiled digs at the restrictions, which one of the firefighter characters does. And you can create a fire character that comes off like the unholy offspring of Carrie and a circus clown.
Which is how Whiting comes off.
"I have come to the opinion that fire is destructive and terrifying," she said. "But it is also an opportunity. Because things don't last. It is part of nature. I think I'm more sympathetic to fire now. There's a line in the show: 'Put the city up, tear the city down, put it up again.' Fire is a terrible thing, but it's also opportunity."
'The Great Fire'
When: Through Nov. 20
Where: Lookingglass Theatre in Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
Tickets: $30-$68 at 312-337-0665 and lookingglasstheatre.org
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