Sharing stories is part of human nature. The act bonds people together, showing us how others’ experiences reflect and rhyme with our own. Stories tell us we are not alone. And that makes them a comfort. Not so for The Dweller in Black Button Eyes’ “Nightmares & Nightcaps,” a theatrical adaptation of John Collier’s tales of irony and bedevilment. But at least his torment is our joy, as our episodic journey through Collier’s work provides a lot of laughs and a plethora of inventive staging.
The Dweller (Kevin Webb) spends long, isolated evenings in his townhouse reading tales of losers in love, failed parenting, and sacrificing one’s principles to strike a deal with Satan. He finds distraction and even fanciful delight in framing such narratives; he comes to believe the stories he shares with the audience could call a fantasy woman to him by night’s end.
Collier’s stories often call for such a suspension of logic in order to work, and they are best characterized as a mix between fairy tale and “Twilight Zone” episode. Adapted and directed by Ed Rutherford, this production’s musing on narrative works best when its stories’ arch humor is underplayed, and when Collier’s thematic threads are cleanly presented by a late turn in the action. The slower stories contain little of these surprises, but still display the author’s daffy humor. While the frame with The Dweller creates a sinister atmosphere for the show, his story does not add up too much in the long run. The perception shift in his journey is sharply staged, but doesn’t much illuminate the greater collection of stories.
Rutherford excels at bringing out detail in flights of fancy, finding room for all sorts of spectacle in The Dweller’s dark parlor. When a bickering married couple (understudy Jessica Lauren Fisher and Shane Roberie) travels the wide world, their escapades lead them not only to a singing Bird of Paradise (Kat Evans) flitting around the furniture, but also to a monstrous lizard creature bursting through the curtains, and a sloth-like mammal hiding in the coat closet. And Rutherford’s ability to underline a joke cannot be overstated; when the Huntress (Megan DeLay) admires her gun collection, she motions at it with long and loving gestures. And when her paramour (Ellen DeSitter) pretends to be stuffed like the rest of her trophy collection, your sympathies line up with her awkward stances. As a married couple too obsessed with one another’s well-being, Maiko Terazawa and Joshua Servantez get not only a variety of opportunities to make faces at one another, they also excel at capturing the intense need to escape a room to save their own skins.
Jeremiah Barr’s puppet creations only add to this cavalcade of fun. His giant lizard is a feat of scope and imagination. And even The Dweller’s use of a hand puppet bird adds to the silliness at play within one story. Beth Laske-Miller’s costumes are bright and evocative of class and time period, while Robert Hornbostel’s ghostly distortion of “Ain’t We Got Fun” slips us in and out of another world easily.
For those looking for a spooky show, “Nightmares & Nightcaps” may not fit the bill, but its dark humor provides enough enjoyment and insight to make a rewarding evening at the theatre.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Humor and spectacle entwine to create a lively narrative analysis.
DIE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”
Show: “Nightmares & Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier”
Venue: The Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N Southport Ave)