Great Chicago Fire Fest #2


It was not a fiasco this time. For the second year, Redmoon Theater created a Great Chicago Fire Festival for the city of Chicago. As I noted on my blog and in a story for the Belt website, last year’s event was a bust in many respects. For one thing, the houses that were supposed to burn — representing Chicago’s famous fire of 1871 — didn’t ignite as planned.

In spite of harsh criticism, the city decided to sponsor the event again this year. But instead of staging it again on the Chicago River in downtown, Redmoon moved it to Northerly Island. Thousands of people turned out on Saturday, Sept. 26, for the free closing ceremony of the festival — which also included artistic events in neighborhoods around the city. And this time, a house-like structure did indeed burn. The orange flames shot high into the sky, their warmth extending far into the audience area. Chicago firefighters were on hand, of course, keeping the blaze under control.

That was an impressive spectacle, and the overall event was a decent enough evening, especially for families looking for some wholesome entertainment. The worst moment came when the organizers and police abruptly told everyone who’d been sitting near the stage to move back a considerable distance — behind a roadway — for safety reasons; some advance warning might have prevented that unfortunate moment of crowd-cruncing.

Highlights included Lynne Jordan’s performance of a Nina Simone song while dangling from a crane. And it helped that the weather this year was considerably nicer. As I noted about last year’s Great Chicago Fire Festival, this event lacks the characters and plots other Redmoon spectacles have featured, making it more of a civic ceremony — with overtones of a pep rally — than a work of theater. As such, it doesn’t rank with my favorite Redmoon productions. But it was certainly more of a crowd-pleaser than that 2014 fizzle.

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The Not-So-Great Chicago Fire Festival

The crowd waited and waited for something spectacular to happen Saturday night, Oct. 4, on the Chicago River. But the promised spectacle — an event created by Redmoon Theater and co-sponsored by the city — proved to be a dispiriting bore. At least there were fireworks at the very end of the drawn-out debacle called the Great Chicago Fire Festival.

Redmoon has put on some wonderful shows in the past, including the outdoor spectacles “Sink, Sank, Sunk” in 2004 and “Joyous Outdoor Event” in 2010. It’s too bad that this latest show — the highest-profile thing Redmoon has ever done — was such a dud. Part of the problem was the lack of any narrative beyond a bare-bones retelling of what happened during  the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The show lacked characters, not having a single identifiable person in it for us to care about.

And then there were the technical difficulties. The floating houses at the center of the show were supposed to burn up, but the blazes fizzled with most of the exteriors of the structures still intact. After a long and uneventful lull, an announcer informed the crowd that something wasn’t working with the electrical system. Eventually, the announcer said the fires would be rekindled “manually.” Another long wait ensued. Finally, there were more flames, though hardly anything worthy of the title “spectacle.”

At last, there were fireworks, which were fun to watch in the midst of the Chicago skyline. But it was too little, too late.

Last year, I wrote a story for the Chicago Tribune about what happened the first time the city re-enacted the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. That was in 1903 — and while that event had its own difficulties, it sounds like it was more of a success.

My photos of tonight’s event might make it look more impressive than it actually was. Keep in mind that most of the time, what we experienced was this:


… rather than this:

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