BWW Review: Dave Malloy's GHOST QUARTET with Black Button Eyes Productions at Stage 773
Dave Malloy's staged song cycle GHOST QUARTET is a madcap romp through seven centuries of mythology, folk tales, gothic horror stories, murder ballads, and more. Described in the lyrics as a "circular story," the nonlinear plot follows four friends through interweaving stories that include two sisters in a murderous love triangle, a modern-day subway platform homicide, and retellings of Arabian Nights and Edgar Allen Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. Malloy's musical influences are as eclectic as his literary sources, and fans will recognize many of the styles present in his best-known work, the Tony Award-winning NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812.
Ed Rutherford directs this Chicago premiere at Black Button Eyes Productions, a young theater company whose mission "is to bring to Chicago premieres and seldom-seen works in which the magical and surreal invade reality." GHOST QUARTET certainly fits the bill: the veil that separates the worlds of the living and the dead is paper-thin in this tale of hauntings, curses, and reincarnation.
In the first of four interweaving plots, sisters Rose (Rachel Guth) and Pearl (Amanda Raquel Martinez) both fall in love with a faithless astronomer who lives in a treehouse (T.J. Anderson). When Rose is passed over for her sister, she makes a deal with a talking bear to turn Pearl into a crow. Based on the 17th century English murder ballad, "The Wind and the Rain," the gruesome fairy tale ends in Pearl being transformed, not into a bird, but into a fiddle shaped from her corpse's breastbone and hair.
Next, the single modern-day plot involves Pearl being pushed from a subway platform while she's distracted by a game on her phone, as Rose stands by photographing the incident. In the Poe-inspired storyline, the Usher family (Martinez, Anderson, and Alex Ellsworth) watch over their dying daughter, Roxie (Guth). We later meet Roxie in flashback as a seven-year-old, when she tells her family about her creepy imaginary friend, Rose, who claims to be Roxie's dead sister and tries to persuade her to join her on the other side. Finally, in 14th-century Persia, Scheherazade (Martinez) of the Arabian Nights spins a bizarre tale about the ghost of Thelonious Monk.
Sound trippy? It absolutely is. Best to sit back and enjoy the wild ride rather than narrow in on plot details, perhaps with a glass of the whiskey eulogized in the track "Four Friends." There's plenty of humor, even for those whose natural bent isn't dark comedy, and the macabre subject matter is presented with a self-aware, winking-at-the-audience air. It's clear that the actors have a blast with the material.
But the music is the true star in this sung-through ensemble piece, which is structured as a live performance of an album: actors announce "Side One, Track One," "Side One, Track Two," etc. at the beginning of each song. Under Nick Sula's music direction, all four actor-singers also play instruments onstage, including piano, cello, percussion, guitar, ukulele, trumpet, autoharp, and accordion. Malloy cites musical influences as diverse as murder ballads, doo-wop, angular bebop, Chinese folk, Islamic adhan, and composers Bernard Herrmann and George Crumb. It's difficult to categorize the results of this amalgamation, especially because each song has a distinct sound, but some of the most memorable tracks evoke Celtic and American folk, bluegrass, jazz, and rhythm and blues.
It's undoubtedly a challenging score, and this cast gives it their all. Instrumentally, Anderson and Ellsworth pull the heavy weight on piano and cello (among others), and Sula joins them with offstage instrumentals. All four actors deliver strong vocals, despite some ensemble issues early in the press night performance. The sound mixing still needs some work in Stage 773's black box theater: for example, Guth's microphone distractingly rubbed against her costume throughout, and the volume was far too loud for her belt during her final solo number. Nevertheless, the cast displays impressive versatility in mastering Malloy's unique stylistic range.
One final note: if you're looking for a taste of the music beforehand or want to revisit it after seeing the show, check out the self-titled album by the original "Ghost Quartet" (Malloy, Brent Arnold, Brittain Ashford, and Gelsey Bell), available on most major platforms. With the eclectic styles represented, there's something for just about everyone to enjoy. But for the full experience of mashed-up ghost stories, best to see it live.
GHOST QUARTET plays through August 17 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL 60657. Tickets are $30 and are available at 773.327.5252 or www.stage773.com.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
Review by Emily McClanathan