Chicago Theater Review: GHOST QUARTET (Black Button Eyes Productions at Stage 773)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 21, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


It’s a roller coaster journey to the dark side of almost everything: Ghost Quartet, now haunting Stage 773 in a Chicago premiere from Black Button Eyes Productions, is a sinister 2014 song cycle “of love, death and whiskey.” It issues from the macabre mind of bookwriter, lyricist and composer Dave Malloy (Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812). It must have been therapeutic for Malloy to create this merry mess — but that doesn’t necessarily make it a contagious cure for us.

Triggered by a broken camera, this eclectic enterprise reaches across seven centuries, detailing the exploits of four friends trapped in time but never freed by death.

In 90 minutes Malloy manages to interweave at breakneck speed shreds of stories as far ranging as Shah Zaman & Scheherazade (from Arabian Nights), Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, along with hit-and-run, helter-skelter allusions to Stephen Sondheim and jazz legend Thelonious Monk. Caught in their own circular maze, the scattershot locations are — in historical but not chronological order — 14th-century Persia, 17th-century Japan and Germany, 19th-century England, 20th-century Sarajevo, and 21st-century New York City.

Performing on various instruments, T.J. Anderson, Alex Ellsworth, Rachel Guth and Amanda Raquel Martinez gamely act out Malloy’s obsessed tale-spinning. (He is clearly smitten with the possibilities of cameras and telescopes and the reality of ghosts.) The streaming storylines contrast two sisters named Rose and Pearl, as well as an astronomer in a tree house, a “Star Child” on fire, and a lackadaisically amoral bear. There’s also a fairly-developed story of a girl sacrificed on the subway.

Well-wrought by music director Nick Sula, Malloy’s 26 morphing and malleable songs, announced as tracks on a four-sided album, run the gamut of gospel, folk, electronic, funky doo-wop, honky-tonk, or just sweetly spiritual solos.

No question, this one-act is no small feat of multi-textured fantasy-mongering. It’s also convulsive, fragmented, confounding, mannered, neurasthenic, and more than a bit self-contentedly cute. You could, in fact, call the action a barely controlled sprawl.

Jeremy Hollis’s cabinet-of-curiosities set is itself a crazy-quilt Grand Guignol treasure trove. Derek Van Barham’s fluid choreography turns this precious nonsense into so many silly steps. G. “Max” Maxin IV provides deftly interconnected projections and video.

It didn’t help that on opening night the theater, perhaps overreacting to a Chicago heat wave, was kept polar-cold, enough to make one critic leave half-way through. (Not me. I was shivering too much to move.)

That’s not in fact an incidental or irrelevant detail, considering that, throughout, Ghost Quartet runs simultaneous endurance tests on its audience and, especially, its four freaking-out performers. Fasten your seat belts and don’t look back.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Ghost Quartet
Black Button Eyes Productions
Stage 773 (The Box), 1225 W. Belmont Ave
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2
ends on August 17, 2019
for tickets, call 773.327.5252 or visit or Stage 773

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