High-flying circus tale transcends real-life tragedy in Concordia production
The Artists of Concordia Theatre present "Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck" in Oak Park through Feb. 23. | Photo by Tom McGrath
By: Catey Sullivan--for Sun-Times Media
February 18, 2014
For memory-searing examples of the fleeting nature of art, it’s tough to beat the intersection of violence and beauty that defined the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in 1918. In the predawn hours of June 22 that year, it took roughly 35 seconds for close to 100 performers to die near Hammond, Ind. after a military transport train smashed into the rear of a Hagenbeck-Wallace train filled with a hodgepodge community of aerial artists, acrobats, strongmen, clowns and wild animals.
This week, Concordia University theater students will pay homage to the tragedy and Hagenbeck-Wallace’s long lost artists with a production of Chicago playwright Jay Torrence’s genre-defying play “Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck.” Running Feb. 20-23 at Oak Park’s Madison Street Theatre, “Roustabout” is a potent mix of comedy and tragedy, clowning and tumbling, traditional dialogue, and fourth-wall busting audience engagement.
“The show is a combination of sincere and beautiful emotion mixed up with this cheeky, brutal sense of humor,” says director Halena Kays, who earned accolades earlier this season directing Torrence’s “Burning Bluebeard” for Chicago’s Ruffians theater company. Despite the tragedy that lies at the nexus of “Roustabout,” the piece is far from dismal, Kays said. “You certainly feel the emotions of loss with this piece,” she adds, “but I think the overriding energy guiding the show comes from the voices of the circus artists and their desire to connect with the audience and make something positive, and beautiful and inspiring.”
Torrence found his inspiration for “Roustabout” when he found himself at Showmen’s Rest in Forest Park’s Woodlawn Cemetery where many of train wreck’s performers lie in perpetuity. Since most of them were burned beyond recognition, the graves are simply marked “Unknown Male,” or “Unknown Female.” A few of the stones, Torrence recalls, are engraved with first names such as “Baldy,” “Smiley.”