Theater Review: NIGHTMARES AND NIGHTCAPS: THE STORIES OF JOHN COLLIER (Black Button Eyes Productions at The Athenaeum Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 20, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


It’s not easy for a frightfest to work (or play) just as well as a laff-fest, let alone to be both: A delightful exercise in creepy-crawly quirkiness, Nightmares and Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier pays hilarious homage to a British-born master of the macabre. Collier (1901-1980), a long-time New Yorker contributor of the Edward Gorey and Charles Addams perverse persuasion. Dream-like with absurdist illogic, and literally diabolical, this 80-minute offering from the perfectly pictorial Black Button Eyes Productions currently infests Chicago’s Athenaeum Theatre: Studio 2 has officially entered its own twilight zone. Why wait till Halloween?

Deftly adapted and directed by Edward Rutherford, cunningly choreographed by Derek Van Barham, and fiendishly designed by puppeteer/set, prop and tech director Jeremiah Barr, six of Collier’s tales of camp terror stir up a witch’s brew of wacky wonders. You’ll laugh till you scream.

They’re introduced by The Dweller (Kevin Webb), a sardonic, bathrobe-clad stand-in for the reclusive, chain-smoking, hard-drinking author. Carrying a huge volume containing Collier’s creations, our morose Dweller regrets that he has “no plan in living” in this “artificial laboratory” of an urban apartment in a “city of ants.” Instead he’s taunted and teased by the footprints and diaphanous presence of a beautiful woman, a dream that, alas, will have no deliverance.

His advice to the audience: “Of the dead speak no evil.”

To banish his engrossing distraction, our haunted host, his bedchamber a paranoid enclave of bizarre accessories, regales us with twisted, phantasmagoric tales of unlucky lovers, deals with the devil, fantastic beasts, and underappreciated children, all seemingly set to an ironically titled theme song from 1921, “Ain’t We Got Fun?”

Monomaniacal, daffily obsessed, and morbidly sensitive, Collier’s characters begin with a demented duo of self-starving honeymooners (Joshua Servantez and Maiko Terazawa), soon out of love and contemplating mutual murder for an insurance windfall.

Wealthy travelers, miserably yoked in a loathsome marriage choked with hen-pecking and recriminations, the Beasleys (Shane Roberie and Caitlin Jackson) encounter poetic justice on a tropical island via a wonderful puppet beast.

In the third tale, pompous windbag Big Simon (Lee Wichman) ends up sadly and badly when he ignores shrill warnings from his all-seeing son Small Simon (Ellen DeSitter) about the tyke’s not so imaginary protector from hell.

In a precious and peculiar piece, a ruthless Huntress (Megan DeLay) falls in love with a supposedly stuffed Squirrel (DeSitter) only to discover, as the rodent outfoxes his odious big-game hunter rival Captain Fenshawe-Fanshawe (Shane Roberie), that taxidermy can be treacherous.

Fifthly, Servantez has fun as a needy L.A. screenwriter who strikes an infernal bargain with movie mogul Scratch (Wichman) to promote an airhead starlet (Kat Evans).

Finally, an ardent Alan Austen (Servantez) purchases a love potion from the Dweller to win over his gay lover in what turns out to be the sweetest tale of all (not hard considering Collier’s fearsome fare).

What’s so taking about this trove is the archly mannered-to-stilted performances from nine dedicated tricksters. The Black Button Eyes zanies are wizards at rapid-fire costume changes, stereotype switching, and assorted accents. Galvanized by such sinisterly stylized overkill, Rutherford has found the perfect theatrical equivalent to Collier’s blend of the lethal and the looney.

Happy Summerween!

photos by Cole Simon

NIGHTMARES AND NIGHTCAPS: The Stories of John Collier
Black Button Eyes Productions
The Athenaeum Theatre (Studio 2), 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3; Tuesday, August 21 at 7:30
ends on September 15, 2018
for tickets, call 773.935.6875 or visit Athenaeum or Black Button Eyes

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