Written & Directed by John Musial
At Lookingglass Theatre, Chicago
Moving visual spectacle thrillingly depicts the 1871 Chicago Fire
Lookingglass Theatre and creator John Musial’s hit 1999 – The Great Fire -is a theatrical event filled with spectacle, high emotions, physicality and stunning staging. I didn’t see the 1999 version of The Great Fire but I was impressed at the scope and depth of Musial’s work in the 2011 version. Seldom will you see a more technical stage work that vividly evokes the tragedy of a city-wide fire. The only thing lacking was the smoke and smell of a major fire. Telling the story of a catastrophic event on stage takes daring and loads of stage craft – all of which are ingredients in this thrilling and emotional telling of the story of the Chicago fire from October 8, 1871.
This fast-paced 90 minutes blends narrative storytelling with snippets from an assortment of folks engulfed in the fire. The seven person cast: Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Thomas J. Cox, Stephanie Diaz, Kevin Douglas, Troy West, Gary Wingert and Lindsey Noel Whiting – as The Fire work frantically as each move from one character to another to tell the story of how the fire defined a city and it’s people.
The work offers a different explanation than the myth of Mrs. O’ Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern as she milked her cow after dark on October 8, 1871 during a warm and extremely breezy weather pattern. The flames quickly spread as the wind and the mostly wooden city fueled the hot embers. The city’s Fire Department has just extinguished the largest fire even in the city the day before and its men and equipment were exhausted. Add the wooden roof on the otherwise stone-built water pumping station and the city had little chance of stopping the spread of the fire. Dryness, large-based flames and high winds created a “fire-storm” that completely overwhelmed the city for almost three days.
John Musial’s production both presents the spectacle of the fire and the personal stories of those citizens affected by the fire. Emigres struggling to find their children, a judge seeking to save his family and the brave firefighters and a corrupt alderman have their adventures dramatized in this ambitious and gorgeous and physically stunning production. Mike Durst’s lighting on John Dalton’s multiple-layered set with chilling sound design by Josh Horvath and Ray Nardelli created the illusions of fire and physical destruction that added depth to the emotional reaction of the city dwellers.
Lookingglass Theatre’s The Great Fire is a thrilling piece of stage craft that effectively tells the story of the Chicago Fire on stage – no easy task. This production only needs you imagination to fuel your total involvement.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: October 1, 2011
At Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave. (in the Water Tower Water Works), Chicago, IL, call 312-337-0665, www.lookingglasstheatre.org, tickets $30 -$68, Wednesdays at 7:30 pm, Thursdays at 3 & 7:30 pm. Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays & Sundays at 3 & 7:30 pm, running time is 90 minutes without intermission, through November 20, 2011