Amanda Raquel Martinez in ‘Ghost Quartet.’ (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
By Becky Sarwate
Featuring promising musical arrangements and a gifted cast, but foundering upon an incomprehensible interpretation of a complicated plot, Black Button Eyes Productions launches its 2019-2020 season with the Chicago premiere of Ghost Quartet. A convoluted fever dream from Broadway composer Dave Malloy (2012’s Tony-nominated Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812), Black Button wastes versatile talent in a clumsy apprehension of source material described by The New York Times in 2014 as a work of “quirky sincerity.”
Whether the story is simply too big for The Box venue at Stage 773 or Black Button Artistic Director Ed Rutherford just has a lot of work left to do in refining it, Ghost Quartet is currently very difficult to consume. While the source material bears the influential marks of other high-profile musical efforts that tell big tales almost exclusively through song and lyrics, in Mr. Rutherford’s hands, the result is a head-scratcher more likely to prompt irritation than excitement.
In name and spirit (pardon the pun) Ghost Quartet unites a twin public fascination with antiquity and the occult while leveraging musical conventions that evoke the more accessible specimens that came before. Like Mr. Malloy’s musical, Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott’s 2008 smash Million Dollar Quartet told a tale of history being made while largely demoting the larger-than-life personalities to ancillary positions. The music was the story, not the tabloid exploits of icons Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.
However, Million Dollar Quartet’s unusual structure was also its greatest asset. Its record-setting audiences already knew the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame greats through any number of biographies and television specials. What often got lost in the thrill of celebrity gossip was the genius of the music. Mr. Mutrux and Mr. Escott could successfully redirect the spotlight precisely because the public appetite for a prurient personal drama about the material’s subjects was long satiated.
Black Button’s take on Ghost Quartet does not benefit from that pop-cultural familiarity. Several days after opening night, I still have no idea who or what the characters I saw on stage were supposed to be communicating. And I still don’t care. Audience members are offered a few allegedly traceable narrative threads and plot devices before they disappear in so much affected, treacly and disorienting effort.
Though the production’s four core performers delivered much of the laboring confusion, it seems unfair to lay blame at their feet. There were several moments during which the cast seemed to be going through the directed motions, as desperate for connection as frustrated audience members. And whether their delivery was vocal, instrumental or both, the team acquits itself well of lyric and song.
I can’t say much about the disjointed snatches of narrative I was able to grasp – a fairytale, an astronomer, some type of omniscient bear possessed of Freddie Krueger-like dream manipulation skill, a subway murder and Edgar Allen Poe. I will admit, however, that I’m still nodding my head to “Any Kind of Dead Person,” and performer Rachel Guth’s energetic, passionate rendering of the song.
However, like so many devotees of occult phenomena, I feel like one or two glimpses of soul aren’t enough. A mind of this world needs more to sustain its interest than solid jams punctuated by illogical, inconsistent and unforgivably dull plotting.
Ghost Quartet runs a mere 90 minutes (no intermission) but it feels so much longer — a theatrical apparition you may hope will soon disappear.
1225 W Belmont, Chicago
Through August 17
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob, their cats, Wendy and Lisa and their dog, RuPaul. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.