Firebrand Theatre's 'Queen of the Mist' is a whirlwind of fury and fight
Updated: Oct 4, 2019
From the minute you step into The Den Theatre's Bookspan space, a foggy sheet of mist consumes you. You disappear for a few seconds and amid searching for a seat, you are a bit dazed, on edge, and uncertain of what's going to unfold over the next two and a half hours. But as soon as the lights shift, the looming, brooding brass shakes, and the thrilling talent of this predominantly femme ensemble make themselves known, there's everything to gain in a story where there's everything to lose.
Queen of the Mist breezes its way into its Chicago premiere by feminist Equity theatre company, Firebrand Theatre, under the precise, overall gliding direction of Elizabeth Margolius and powerful music direction by Charlotte Rivard-Hoster. Bringing Michael John LaChiusa's book and score to life is a delectable challenge in not only telling stories of unknown heroines, but offering platter upon platter of savory, yet chilling melodies to make a small ensemble feel as grand as an overflowing symphony.
Leading as conductor of this barge is the glorious, metamorphic Barbara E. Robertson as Anna Edson Taylor. Taylor is first introduced to us as a vivacious, vivid storyteller with the charisma of a town gossip mixed with the mischievousness of a trickster, always managing to frisk and flirt with boundaries of convention and class. She keeps your attention with her mysterious background playing with the truth of her age, deceased husband, occupation, and travels. Wherever she leads, you want to follow.
This 1900s pioneer begins in looking to make use of the time she's got: "There's greatness in me. It shall be revealed." The slump she starts in would lead anyone to hide under the covers or float on a river of denial, but Anna is hell-bent on landing on her feet even if her path is unclear. She lumps onto her younger sister Jane, played by operatic goddess Neala Barron. (Barron also understudies for Anna, which is worth the price of double admission to see her take on the oceanic queen.) Jane pointedly remarks how Anna spent all their deceased mother's inheritance and mentions her tendencies into vanity and selfishness. Deep, crushing flaws exist within Anna no matter how much confidence she showers over them and they're bound to burst eventually...
Stumbling upon gobsmacked tourists who gawk at attempts to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel with none who have survived to tell the tale, Anna decides to make a stand otherwise continue floating in her penniless, motionless existence. From its advertising or a Wikipedia search, there's no hesitation that she won't prove successful. The musical serves more so as a vehicle of what it was like to be in her shoes, to take on this feat as someone who didn't consider herself a feminist against a tide of an eager media ready to dim her star before it had a chance to rise. Lauren Nichols' set is as cleverly designed as Anna's barrel. It offers versatility, but with a constant industrial atmosphere shifting from docks to fairs to bathrooms. It also allows for playful plotting of Anna's provisions through chalking on the floor and walls.
Anna's calling is quickly commodified as a gimmick in the hands of Disney adjacent slickster, Frank, an agent played with apt oiliness and transparently hollow charisma by Max J. Cervantes. He immediately dismisses Anna as an "insane woman" who "ought to be locked up" to which she coldly shuts him down: "No. I'm a phenomena." Act I offers an enrapturing, aquamarine dive as she seizes her moment. You can literally feel the ripples swoosh under your feet as the dissonant harmonies build and vanish in the reverberation.
Act II picks up on Anna now on the other side of the fall. Despite her big break, she can't seem to catch one. Her relationships with Frank and Jane flounder, the immediate buoyancy of her buzz dies down, and an attempt to establish herself in the same social circles as temperance movement leader, Carrie Nation (magnificently played by Liz Chidester), flops refusing to be the Velma to her Roxie. Anna's experiment doesn't liberate her the way she imagined, but instead traps her making all her fears bubble to the surface.
The group's superior vocalizations allows Queen of the Mist to steer on course. Frank (Cervantes) is a smooth, silky rock with a deceivingly shiny exterior, desperately trying to keep Anna grounded. New Manager (the formidable Brianna Buckley) is a passing shower, brief, but refreshing in navigating Anna's next move. Carrie (Chidester) is an intense wind, picking up traction with her popularity and clearing whatever's in her path. Jane (Barron) is an ember, a fiery source of clarity and cruelty who proves an obstacle to Anna instead of an ally.
Anna is a force of nature all her own. Robertson commands brilliance in a cold, silver suit of armor of icy courage and stimulating perseverance. In a rare moment of vulnerability, she relinquishes in the threshold of a masterful meltdown ("Laugh at the Tiger"). Frank fetches her for her debut interrupting: "It's time." She wipes off some tears and shatters any nerves or doubts before turning around completely composed, stoic as if she were mundanely fixing a hair in place or straightening her jacket like nothing monumental occurred. She's neither Titanic's Rose or the Unsinkable Molly Brown. She's the gem of the ocean, the domineering iceberg, a storm you don't want to end.
There's a triumphant monologue from Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag that begins with how women are born with pain built in. This idea resonates and is challenged in Queen of the Mist when the only release offered from that destiny is when you leave this world. It's extremely dissatisfying, but devastatingly accurate to see what should be the arc of an achievement instead about a woman not awarded recognition in her time. In only their second season, this show mystifies expectations of what Firebrand is capable of. Fans of Side Show and Pippin will especially be enthralled, despite a tiger metaphor that's revisited too many times.