Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Kevin Webb and cast. Photo by Cole Simon.
By Bec Willett
Upon entering the lobby at The Edge Theater, you’re greeted with a board of cast headshots where all the eyes have been replaced with drawn-in button eyes. The button eyes are a reference to CORALINE, the inaugural production of and inspiration for theater company Black Button Eyes, whose mission is to produce less known works in which “the magical and surreal invade reality.” Just as with the lobby board of headshots, their production of NEVERMORE -The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe carries an unsettling, bold, gothic aesthetic.
A musical from Canadian writer Jonathan Christenson, NEVERMORE tells the tumultuous life-story of poet Edgar Allan Poe. The subject matter and style may be a great fit for the company but the structure of this musical’s narrative isn’t. Christenson employs some engaging fantastical devices such as an ensemble that plays multiple surrealist characters and the anthropomorphization of Poe’s raven, but there’s just so much content to cover that instead of diving deep, the story floats on the surface as exposition rather than exploration. Fortunately, the issues in the writing are not present in the delivery. The performances of the ensemble of actors are consistent and mostly specific, navigating the transitions between scenes, characters, and styles with confidence. Even though we must wait until well into the first act to get a real sense of Poe’s perspective, actor Kevin Webb delivers a heartfelt performance throughout and demonstrates an impressive vocal range. The best moments are those rare instances where a relationship is explored, allowing the actors to delve into them. Of note are Megan DeLay’s delightfully macabre yet youthful Elmira and the comedic timing of Maiko Terazawa as Poe’s foster mother Fanny Allan. It leaves one a little disappointed to think of what they could have done with a script that dived a little deeper.
While some of the choices don’t quite come to fruition, Black Button Eyes’ aesthetic remains true in the direction and design. Designers Beth Laske Miller (costume and mask) and Rachel “Rocky” Kolecke (props and puppet) were given mammoth tasks in creating so many locations, times, and characters on a shoe-string budget – and they almost made it work. There are definitely items where the eclectic steam-punk style didn’t quite cover it; however, there are many instances where these designers’ resourcefulness and creativity show through, allowing the surreal world to ‘invade’ the real one. Other design and directorial choices stop the invasion short – especially Liz Cooper’s lighting, which often embraces the cliche uplight and never quite gets dark enough to be a symbol of Poe’s inner turmoil. While Derek Van Barham’s inventive vaudevillian choreography forms a strong foundation of the language of movement in this surrealist world, having a full-size bed on a small stage means that much of Ed Rutherford’s blocking distracts us back into reality, focusing on getting the bed out of the way rather than further developing the world.
While NEVERMORE doesn’t quite succeed at what it’s striving for, Black Button Eyes’ bold and unwavering aesthetic makes them a company to watch in the Chicago theater landscape.
NEVERMORE – The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe runs through January 28th. For more information visit blackbuttoneyes.com.