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The magical, surreal are second nature to Black Button Eyes stage troupe

Kevin Webb (left) and Ryan Lanning in Black Button Eyes Productions’ Chicago premiere musical "Nevermore – The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe." | Photo by Cole Simon

Black Button Eyes Productions is dedicated to staging Chicago premieres and seldom seen works best described as having elements of the magical, the surreal and the supernatural. So far it’s been an interesting lineup.

For its debut in 2014, Black Button Eyes staged Stephen Merritt and David Greenspan’s musical adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” (the lead character travels to a world where everyone has black buttons for eyes thus the moniker). This was followed by Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon’s “Goblin Market” and “Amour,” featuring music by pop composer Michel Legrand. And earlier this season, there was a playfully diabolic staging of Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott’s “Shockheaded Peter.”

‘Nevermore — The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe’
When: Jan. 5-28
Black Button Eyes Productions at The Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway
Tickets: $30
Info: nevermorechicago.brownpapertickets.com

Now closing out the Black Button Eyes’ season is what looks like another good fit — Canadian playwright Jonathan Christenson’s “Nevermore — The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe.” Producing artistic director Ed Rutherford was intrigued by the show after seeing clips of an Off Broadway production especially one song, an adaptation of Poe’s poem “The Raven.”

“I think what the author excels at is weaving together Poe’s poetry and excerpts from his stories into the text and music while using rhyming verse very similar to Poe’s writing.” says Rutherford. “It’s an exploration of Poe’s life but also his vivid imagination. How as a child he might have interpreted some people and events and how these would have haunted him throughout his life.”

Poe’s life was shrouded in mystery and filled with tragedy and death, which shadowed his writing. Such stories as “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” are staples of literature classes and have whet the imagination of many young readers.

Ryan Lanning and Megan DeLay in Black Button Eyes Productions’ “Nevermore – The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe.” | Cole Simon

Kevin Webb, who has been in several Black Button Eyes productions, most recently as the Shakespeare-spouting MC in “Shockheaded Peter,” portrays Poe.  Megan DeLay, Jessica Lauren Fisher,
Ryan Lanning, Matt McNabb, Maiko Terazawa and Jeremy Trager co-star.

“You come to realize Poe’s life was no walk in the park,” Webb admits with a laugh. “There’s a lot of professional and personal heartbreak. There are reasons his creative mind was very dark.”

A four-piece band led by music director Nick Sula backs the seven-member cast. The mostly sung-through score has a definite rock influence, and Rutherford, who is directing the show, notes, “Lovely melodies and gorgeous harmonies weave together to give the songs a haunting beauty.”

Rutherford refers to Black Button Eyes as “a one-man show that one man being me,” he says with a laugh. In the next breath, he sings the praises of the creative team of collaborators that he calls upon for assistance. “From the very beginning, I’ve had my go to people,” Rutherford says. “I think these have been very fruitful partnerships.”

Ed Rutherford

Joining the team this time around are set designer Jeremy Hollis, sound designer Robert Hornbostel, costume designer Beth Laske-Miller, choreographer Derek Van Barham and prop/puppet master Rachelle Kolecke.

Since the production company’s inception the look of each show has been a big part of Rutherford’s aesthetic as he makes the magical and mythical come to life. He considers Laske-Miller, who also designed the lively costumes for “Shockheaded Peter,” his “ace in the hole.”

“Beth knows how to interpret my crazy ideas into something the audience is going to find really breathtaking,” Rutherford says, adding,” Even when you’re doing storefront theater, it’s great to have little surprises from a design standpoint.”

As a youngster, Rutherford was drawn not just to dark stories but anything fantastical with a fairy tale or mythic element.

“I remember Edith Hamilton’s ‘Mythology’ being one of my treasured possession,” says Rutherford, referring to classic text that brings to life Greek, Roman and Norse myths. “Since then, I’ve been fascinated by that kind of fiction which now includes Gaiman and others like Peter S. Beagle and, of course, Poe.”

Rutherford, who also is an artistic associate at Promethean Theatre Ensemble, graduated from the theater program at Northwestern University. After seeing Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of “The Odyssey” during his freshman year, he realized there was a place in theater for his ideas.

“It suddenly seemed possible to stage any kind of fantastical story no matter how surreal or off the wall,” he says.
Rutherford claims he has a lot of “irons in the fire” but wouldn’t yet say what he has in store for his next season but taking a note from Zimmerman does admit he is interested in doing his own adaptations.

“It’s important for me to feel like I’m adding to the conversation in Chicago as far as doing work that not everyone else is doing. I want to get these stories that have gotten under my skin out in front of people in new and creative ways.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.