“Once upon a time,” Tim the Mindbender drawled, “a magician lied to me.” It was 5pm on the first truly cold Saturday of the year. The small crowd, faces partially obscured by cups of cider, looked up from their tarot cards. With a grin, the magician situated himself in front of the open trunk of a white rent-a-truck capped with an old-time-circus-style sign decorated with doves.
Tim started the engine of “The Great Fire: A Traveling Truck Show,” a mobile multi-part routine of several one-act plays that trace Chicago’s fiery past. Made up of a mishmash of local artists who performed literally out of the back of a truck, the show had travelled across the city, from Logan Square to West Town, throughout October. This performance on October 28, at the Growing Station Community Garden in Pilsen, was the last of the season.
Tim wasn’t part of the show’s main storyline, but he set the tone of droll self-awareness mixed with family-friendly entertainment that the other acts maintained. Once he’d picked the liars out of the crowd through ostensibly magical means, he bowed out, and Proud Pigeon jumped into a musical introduction, flanked by her guitar-strumming companion, Hobo Cat.
Proud Pigeon, her human face peeping out of the bottom of a wide-eyed bird head, gave a historical account of Chicago’s founding; a tale supposedly inherited through forty-seven generations of feathered storytellers. The history would begin, she said, way back in 1871, when the Great Fire ravaged the bustling city of Chicago. Cue a rollicking mix of comedy, music, and musical comedy, which ran from a gloriously over-the-top caricature of businessmen, complete with cigar-chomping and extensive mustaches, to the adventures of Denim Dennis, a stonemason exasperated with life who wandered through the decades in an outfit made entirely of sewn together jeans. The Hawk, covered in felt feathers and flames, darted in and out of scenes as a metaphor for physical and social storms, from the fire and heat waves to poor treatment of immigrants.
The Hawk, in the end, was saved with the aid of Denim Dennis and a conveniently located fire extinguisher. She ruffled her feathers as the other characters cheered the cooler weather, and then leaped to her feet. Proud Pigeon sighed and lamented the onset of winter. The cast and the audience alike knew that the seasons were changing.