Theater review: Black Button Eyes stages fantastical 'Nightmares & Nightcaps'

  • Kevin Webb plays The Dweller, narrator of Black Button Eyes Productions' "Nightmares & Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier."

    Kevin Webb plays The Dweller, narrator of Black Button Eyes Productions' "Nightmares & Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier." Courtesy of Cole Simon

 
 
Updated 8/24/2018 11:02 AM

"Nightmares and Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier" -- ★ ★ ★

"The course of true love never did run smooth," observes Lysander in William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

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He was referring to the play's beguiled lovers (including himself) whose romances are upended by a pair of peevish fairies and their mischievous henchman. But Lysander's statement also applies to the unhappily enamored characters who populate Black Button Eyes Productions' deliciously macabre/macabrely delicious "Nightmares & Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier."

Collier was a 20th-century British novelist and screenwriter known for his wry, darkly fanciful tales, which director Ed Rutherford has adapted into a series of snappy vignettes set during the 1930s and 1940s. With one exception, the half-dozen stories that make up "Nightmares & Nightcaps" center on the uneasy relationships between longtime spouses and would-be lovers.

The domineering Mrs. Beaseley (Caitlin Jackson), left, is menaced by a monster in a story narrated by The Dweller (Kevin Webb) in Black Button Eyes' adaptation of John Collier's short stories "Nightmares & Nightcaps."
The domineering Mrs. Beaseley (Caitlin Jackson), left, is menaced by a monster in a story narrated by The Dweller (Kevin Webb) in Black Button Eyes' adaptation of John Collier's short stories "Nightmares & Nightcaps." - Courtesy of Cole Simon

Serving as narrator of these tainted love stories is the slightly sinister Dweller (a sly, charismatic Kevin Webb), a character in Collier's 1951 short story "Are You Too Late, Or Was I Too Early?" The Dweller is a listless writer who discovers a woman's footprint on his bathroom floor and becomes intrigued with the phantom nymph he believes inhabits his apartment.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Maiko Terazawa and Joshua Servantez play cloyingly infatuated newlyweds Alice and Irwin who take out large insurance policies on each other that leave them hungry and embittered in "Over Insurance."

In "Incident on a Lake," Shane Roberie plays hapless, henpecked Mr. Beaseley. He inherits $50 million and wants to spend it exploring the world. His harridan wife (the wonderfully bellicose Caitlin Jackson) wants a home in Jacksonville, but agrees to accompany him so she can make his adventure miserable. She accomplishes that -- in part -- by shooting the elusive Bird of Paradise (Wheaton songbird Kat Evans) that Mr. Beaseley has long sought.

The adventure-seeking Mr. Beaseley (Shane Roberie), left, seeks the elusive Bird of Paradise (Kat Evans) in Black Button Eyes' premiere of "Nightmares & Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier."
The adventure-seeking Mr. Beaseley (Shane Roberie), left, seeks the elusive Bird of Paradise (Kat Evans) in Black Button Eyes' premiere of "Nightmares & Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier." - Courtesy of Cole Simon

"Squirrels Have Bright Eyes" is a 1930s society romp starring Lisle native Ellen DeSitter as a suitor so enamored of a socialite/big game huntress (Megan DeLay) he considers having himself stuffed by her accommodating taxidermist (Webb).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In "Pictures in the Fire," a devilish Lee Wichman plays Hollywood producer Scratch. He ensnares struggling screenwriter Charles Rhythm (Servantez) in a lifetime (and beyond) contract writing scripts for aspiring actress Belinda (Evans), whom Scratch wants to bed.

The endearing Servantez returns in "The Chaser" as lovesick Alan Austen, who purchases a potion to make a young man fall for him, but fails to comprehend the alchemist's warnings about wishes granted.

Surrounded by his minions, Scratch (Lee Wichman), center, sets his sights on a Hollywood starlet in Black Button Eyes' "Nightmares & Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier."
Surrounded by his minions, Scratch (Lee Wichman), center, sets his sights on a Hollywood starlet in Black Button Eyes' "Nightmares & Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier." - Courtesy of Cole Simon

The only story not involving romantic partners, "Thus I Refute Beelzy," centers on cruel, overbearing Simon Carter (nice work by Wichman, whose offhand manner chills) and his son Small Simon (an eerie DeSitter). A fearful, friendless boy, Small Simon finds comfort in imaginary friend Mr. Beelzy, whose existence Big Simon insists on debunking.

The Hollywood tale in particular belabors its point and needs trimming, but for the most part Rutherford's solidly acted production moves briskly (aided in part by some cleverly choreographed scene changes).

Lisle native Ellen DeSitter, right, plays a timid young man in love with Megan DeLay's big game hunter in Black Button Eyes' "Nightmares & Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier" through Sept. 15.
Lisle native Ellen DeSitter, right, plays a timid young man in love with Megan DeLay's big game hunter in Black Button Eyes' "Nightmares & Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier" through Sept. 15. - Courtesy of Cole Simon

Overall, Bensenville native Jeremiah Barr's puppets and creatures are less fanciful than those he created for BBE's 2017 production of "Shockheaded Peter," but they're still effective. The same holds true for designer Robert Hornbostel's ominous sound and Beth Laske-Miller's amusing period costumes.

That said, credit for the appeal of "Nightmares & Nightcaps" rests with Rutherford, whose quirky, disquieting, ever-comedic production nicely showcases Collier's peculiar tales.

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Location: The Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, (773) 935-6875, athenaeumtheatre.org or blackbuttoneyes.com

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 15

Tickets: $17-$32

Running time: About 85 minutes, no intermission

Parking: Metered street parking available, paid parking available in the lot shared with St. Alphonsus Catholic Church

Rating: Suitable for teens and older; some scenes may be too unsettling for younger or more sensitive theatergoers

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