“MY PRIDE WILL BE MY FALL.”
A fierce central performance by Barbara E. Robertson crowns “Queen of The Mist,” Michael John LaChiusa’s complex musical biography of the first person to run Niagara Falls in a barrel, which opened Friday in its Chicago premiere at The Den Theatre, an ambitious and inspired choice for the closing production of Firebrand Theatre’s second season.
Nontraditionally cast—in step with Firebrand’s mission to employ and empower women by expanding their opportunities on and off stage—director Elizabeth Margolius’s superb company, led by Robertson’s sizzling portrayal of barrel daredevil Annie Edson Taylor, with music director Charlotte Rivard-Hoster, bring the fascinating true story to life. Framed in a rugged, hewn-wood set designed by Lauren M. Nichols, with crisp lighting by Cat Wilson, earthy turn-of-the-century costumes by Brenda Winstead, pinpoint sound design by Carl Wahlstrom and engineered by Giselle Castro, Firebrand’s “Queen of the Mist” is a rich, nuanced and absorbing musical odyssey.
For most of the 20th century, you could ascend a steep wooden staircase to experience the captivating power and force of Niagara Falls. Today, tour groups routinely venture in and around the falls in boats for a closer look. Horseshoe Falls—one of three sections also known as the Canadian Falls and where Annie made her mark in 1901—measures roughly 170 feet high by 2,600 feet wide. Since the late 1800s, thrillseekers have attempted to run the Falls for reasons of fame and glory. For others, the unfortunate ones who died, the stories have been left untold.
For Annie, time was also running out. “I will show the world the greatness in me,” Roberston sings in her portrayal of Annie. Then Robertson’s voice quivers as her mind curls around the notion that “my pride will be my fall.” When she declares “Complacency needs fear!” to her sister Jane, terrifically portrayed by Neala Barron, Annie speaks for everyone of a certain age who ponders the meaning of our existence and who questions what lies ahead in the twilight of our lives. The line resonates like a personal challenge for us to take an inventory of our accomplishments, as well as those goals yet unrealized, and make a conscious effort to confront the fear of failure that holds us back from realizing our true potential.
The fear and thirst for recognition compel Annie to take a run at Niagara Falls in a barrel of her own design. The life-and-death wager corresponds to her present state of affairs: a widowed dance teacher with few options, little income and no place to live. Stuck in a purgatory of her own making, her spectacular death by falling would be of no real consequence. When Annie succeeded, however, the story she could tell would certainly lead to a new and prosperous life. She convinces Frank Russell (a solid role for Max J. Cervantes) to take a little chance on her as her manager, and then, Annie Taylor engineers, tests and, on her 63rd birthday, guides her barrel—dubbed “The Queen of the Mist”— over the Horseshoe Falls and into the history books.
Which leads to the misty climax of LaChiusa’s work, an ending that begs the questions: How do we tell our story? And, who will listen? Once it is completely told, do we live or die? And, how will we be remembered? The remarkably talented ensemble—with hearty featured turns for Maryam Abdi, Liz Bollar, Liz Chidester and Hannah Starr—unravel LaChiusa’s unique characters in telling that part of the tale. But a simple gravestone erected years after Annie died a pauper’s death says it all: Annie Edson Taylor—First to go over the Horseshoe Fall in a barrel and live--October 24, 1901.
QUEEN OF THE MIST
through July 6th
THE DEN THEATRE
1331 N. MILWAUKEE AVE.
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