3.5 stars out of 4
British expatriate writer John Collier’s stories are horrifying confections about the unique depravity of humans, mostly related to the twin perils of desire and getting what one wants. Black Button Eyes Productions delightfully transfers Collier’s mordant humor to the stage, with well-chosen stories that rarely overstay their welcome. As adapted and directed by Ed Rutherford, and performed with appropriate sardonic glee by a talented cast, the world premiere of Nightmares & Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier introduces an audience unfamiliar with Collier’s talents to their pleasures, and offers those who are already familiar an opportunity to see them brought to life. Collier’s wit and keen observation of the petty ways humans make themselves miserable are remarkably fresh and relevant, and Rutherford has made sure to strike a balance between stories of disaster and stories of redemption—often just in the nick of time. Though his stories and their echoes reverberate in later, thinly-veiled adaptations, John Collier’s fame has faded. This production is a worthy resurrection of Collier’s voice and name.
Carnivorous plants, casual killings, deals with the devil, surpluses and deficits of love…all lead to sticky situations in the works of John Collier. In Ed Rutherford’s production, our guide into this world is the Dweller, played with self-deprecating world weariness by Kevin Webb, who finds he may not be alone in his posh but insular city apartment. As he pursues his possible co-habitant, he winds his way through the stories of John Collier, trying to follow the precept “de mortuis nil nisi bonum.” This proves difficult. A young couple learns the pitfalls of insurance. Mr. and Mrs. Beasley fail to enjoy a $50 million windfall. Modern childrearing methods are put to the test when Little Simon indulges in what Big Simon insists is a fantasy. A Huntress finds herself in the crosshairs of two very different suitors. A young screenwriter has misgivings about a contract that his agent has arranged for him. A young man seeking a love potion gets nervous when the prices of other potions are revealed first by a veracious apothecary. Each story has a different tone, and director Rutherford and choreographer Derek Van Barham, working with a pitch-perfect cast and design team, deftly transition between them. Jeremiah Barr, as the set, props and puppet designer (as well as the TD responsible for making sure any technical problems they cause are solved) creates a playground that can contain both the whimsical and ghoulish and assembles the whimsical, ferocious and ghoulish puppets and props that the cast expertly employs, including birds, beasts, beds and lots of glassware. The elegant apartment is festooned with props and references to the stories to come. A skull reminds the tenant of mortality, there is an assortment of weapons, a stuffed squirrel oversees the action, a painting becomes meaningful as the evening unfolds, and books and a phonograph add a dash of culture. Lighting designer Liz Cooper transports the audience to environs inside and out, around the world, and literally to Hell and back. Assisting in making the puppets more ferocious and the Fiery Pit more fiery, as well as setting the tone with often tongue-in-cheek musical selections, is sound designer Robert Hornbostel. Costume designer Beth Laske-Miller’s creations are a cross between Gary Larson and Edward Gorey, but in Technicolor. The hopeful young couple radiates innocence, the Carters are clad in stripes, the Huntress looks like she’s been dropping game since Ancient Times and her paramour is the very model of the Kipling protagonist. The Beaseleys wear matching and garish tourist garb, despite their differences. The cast become postmen, trophies, starlets, squirrels, party goers and players in the blink of an eye (or under cover of the clever choreography).
Besides acting as our host, Kevin Webb as the Dweller also melts into different roles in the stories he tells, capturing Collier’s tone and his characters’ physical and verbal traits with seemingly effortless poise. Ellen DeSitter takes on the roles of the small male characters, including Small Simon and the resourceful and smitten squirrel. She is a particularly charming squirrel, revealing the depths of the rodent’s infatuation as well as his fortitude as he risks all for love. Megan DeLay plays Small Simon’s concerned and compliant mother, but really shines as the Huntress who disdains love for any but her guns. Kat Evans takes on the decorative roles, as a trilling Bird of Paradise, a doting Bogey and, most memorably, an insufferable ingenue who quickly becomes a diva. Caitlin Jackson will not be denied as the horrible Mrs. Beaseley, whose spite knows no bounds, and the smoothly imperious Agent. Shane Roberie tries vainly to live his dream as Mr. Beasley, narrowly missing the wonders they encounter (delightfully portrayed by actors and puppets), as Mrs. Beaseley sometimes literally tries to shoot it down. He also plays the awful hunter Captain Fenshawe-Fanshawe, who tries to snare the wrong prey. Joshua Servantez and Maiko Terazawa take on the fresh-faced youths, including the cloyingly charming (yes, that’s possible) lovestruck newlyweds, who may be a bit too in tune with each other. Servantez also plays the Raymond Chandler-esque screenwriter, who finds he has entered into a disturbing contract and the besotted young man who wants an inexpensive shortcut to love. Terazawa also innocently finds herself witnessing the results of Small Simon’s interactions with the mysterious Mr. Beelzy. Proving that bad parenting is less entertaining than pure evil is Lee Wichman, overbearingly rational and heedless as the self-styled Big Simon, and charismatic and amiable (usually) as would-be film producer Scratch.
Ranging from cautionary tales of infatuation, to faux noir warnings about the perils of fame, to dark musings on parental responsibility, to fanciful trips around the world…and yes, love stories, John Collier’s works are both witty and acerbic. Black Button Eyes Productions delivers a charming introduction and brilliant homage to the writer. Adapter and director Ed Rutherford has found a perfect frame in the dissolute Dweller’s attempt to untangle his own story. The precise and enthralling ensemble cast weave in and out of stories, as principals or extras, and sometimes even scenery, assisted by the choreography of Derek Van Barham. The whimsical set, props and puppets by Jeremiah Barr and costumes by Beth Laske-Miller usher the audience into the absurd world onstage. The world premiere of Nightmares and Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier rescues Collier from the obscurity which threatens to overtake him, no infernal assistance required.
Nightmares and Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier runs through September 15 at the Athenaeum Theatre (Studio Two), 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. Regular performances take place Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm, with an added performance on Tuesday, August 21 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $30 ($15 for students) and are available athenaeumtheatre.org, by calling (773)935-6875 or by visiting the Athenaeum Theatre Box Office. More information is also available at www.blackbuttoneyes.com or www.theatreinchicago.com.
Photo by Cole Simon: (left to right) Kevin Webb, Kat Evans, Shane Roberie, Maiko Terazawa and Megan DeLay in Black Button Eyes Productions’ world premiere of NIGHTMARES AND NIGHTCAPS: The Stories of John Collier.
Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.