Black Button Eyes premieres COVID-19-inspired online take on Poe's 'Masque'
To say righteous indignation inspired Black Button Eyes' timely, digital re-imagining of Edgar Allan Poe's gothic tale "The Masque of the Red Death" is a misnomer.
It was outright anger that spurred BBE artistic director Ed Rutherford to adapt Poe's story about a prince who escapes the plague decimating his country by retreating with his court to a remote fortress where they carouse at a magnificent masked ball.
Specifically, Rutherford's anger was fueled by New York Times and Guardian articles detailing how the superrich were chartering private jets to remote locales, self-isolating on yachts and arranging for private medical suites in the event they contracted COVID-19. The result is BBE's free online production, "Masque of the Red Coronavirus."
Part satire, part variety show, the adult-themed show alternates videotaped monologues of the Prince (Shane Roberie) addressing his guests with videotaped dance, spoken word, original music, opera and puppetry performances.
The "impulse to retreat from the pandemic and use money and power to isolate oneself ... instead of trying to help," combined with anger over the Trump administration's handling of the crisis, inspired the Northwestern University graduate, who hammered out the script for "Masque of the Red Coronavirus" over several days early last month.
He imagined the show unfolding live as a curated performance art piece. But the shuttering of Chicago-area theaters in response to Gov. J.B. Pritzker's social-distancing orders forced Rutherford to revise the format. The result is a digital production that might one day transfer to the stage.
"I would be thrilled to have other people do something like this when theaters reopen," he said. "I love the idea of the framework being used to make a political statement and curate other types of performances."
Determined to make the project collaborative, Rutherford offered general guidance but gave the performers free reign to interpret their characters. He admits the approach and the necessity of putting the show together remotely made him nervous.
"If I wanted to make this available quickly, there couldn't be a lot of back and forth," he said of the show, which premiered on the BBE website blackbuttoneyes.com on March 31, weeks after Rutherford came up with the idea.
"It was thrilling to trust people to do what they do best," he said.
Having that kind of freedom was both thrilling and terrifying, said Wheaton native Kat Evans, a frequent BBE collaborator who plays the voice of the coronavirus.
"I was energized and honored when I got the call to be part of this," she said. "It made me remember I have a community and I have something to say."
In challenging times, "anything we can do to remind each other we are not alone and we are in this together" is a comfort, she said. Not only that, it's empowering.
"Art is always a good response when you want to do something and you feel powerless," she said.
Like Evans, musician/dancer Dawn Xiana Moon was eager to participate.
"Making art right now is strange," said Moon, who performs a fire dance. "We're all trying to find different ways to collaborate when you can't actually meet up in person."
To an extent, art helps people endure a crisis, Moon said.
"All you're doing now is consuming art," she said. "I'm encouraged by people who support and recognize this."
Cabaret singer Scott Gryder calls Rutherford's invitation a special gift.
He plays Stanley, the nephew of one of the prince's golfing buddies. Gryder, who describes his role as comic relief, performs "The Lonely Spider," an unsettling novelty number by Rutherford and composer Jonathon Lynch, which features an arachnid puppet Gryder built from materials he found around the house.
"He (Rutherford) told me to follow my bliss and do what I wanted," Gryder said. "As a director, that can be quite dangerous."
Creating, speaking out and providing entertainment is what artists should be doing right now, Gryder said.
"For Ed to be able to provide that at a time like this is incredible," he said. "I applaud him."
To watch "Masque of the Red Coronavirus," go to blackbuttoneyes.com.