Review: In Black Button Eyes’ Ghost Quartet, Comedy and Tragedy Span Four Centuries

Alex Ellsworth, Amanda Raquel Martinez, Rachel Guth and TJ Anderson. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Black Button Eyes Productions staged my favorite musical of the year, Evil Dead the Musical, and when I saw Ghost Quartet and its description I jumped at the opportunity to see it. I will admit that throughout the beginning I was confused, like when you take a drink from a glass that you thought was water but was actually Sprite. It's not that you hate the Sprite, it just wasn't what you were expecting. From the description that reads, "...a musical ghost story of four friends who love each other, kill each other, and drink whiskey across centuries and lifetimes," I guess I was expecting more of a comedy, and whille there are definitely comedic parts of Ghost Quartet, it is far more than that. There's comedy and tragedy, with a story and characters that span 700 years and four different centuries. With story and lyrics by Dave Malloy, and direction by Ed Rutherford (who also directed Evil Dead the MusicalGhost Quartet is a complex beast that defied my expectations in so many different ways, all of which were good. Ghost Quartet tells the tale of four ghosts (TJ Anderson, Alex Ellsworth, Rachel Guth, and Afourmanda Raquel Martinez) as they love each other and kill each other through multiple lives and time periods. It is told across  parts, called sides, with each side being separated into tracks. Ghost Quartet can get a bit confusing sometimes, not because it's told poorly and doesn't explain itself, but in a similar way to how Pulp Fiction can be confusing the first time you watch it. All the actors play multiple characters throughout multiple sub-stories that all come together to tell one overarching story, with Ghost Quartet skipping between storylines to either start new ones or continue those that had already started. One track may have Martinez and Guth as a mother and daughter, respectively, and then another may have them as lovers. This isn't a critique of the production but more a warning that you really want to be paying full attention at all times so you don't miss a transition and find yourself totally lost. You don't have to worry about leaving at the end with no idea of what happened though, because the show ends with several scenes that serve to tie together all of the sub-stories, as well as explaining what characters everyone was playing. This was a nice touch, and it doesn't come off as forced, because Rachel Guth's character is just as confused as the audience may be. Ghost Quartet does a great job of switching tones without coming off as unfocused, with the multiple sub-stories allowing for instances of humor and heartbreak, anger and love, all within a short amount of time, without feeling like it's trying to be everything at once. I'm sure you've seen a movie that's attempted this, action movies trying to have an emotionally moving scene being a prime offender. Tracks like "The Astronomer," a humorous song sung by Anderson from the perspective of none other than the Astronomer co-exist perfectly with tracks like "Family Meeting," a scene where Guth (as Roxie) cusses her mother and father out for sitting around while saying that her dead sister is telling her that Roxie should "cross over." Rachel Guth and TJ Anderson. Photo by Michael Brosilow. It's Ghost Quartet's musical numbers that are the main draw, and it doesn't disappoint either in quality or quantity. In fact, I think it has one of the highest ratios of sung to spoken dialogue out of any musical I've ever seen, with somewhere around 25 separate tracks throughout its 90-minute runtime. Like the rest of the show, these pieces range from comedy bits like the aforementioned "The Astronomer" to the track found in "Usher Part 1" where Martinez and Andersen sob over their dying daughter. Perhaps my favorite part of the entire musical is how it handles the instrumentation. While music director Nick Sula is behind a curtain throughout the show, providing additional music, the majority of the instruments are played by the actors themselves. TJ Anderson can be found throughout the show behind the piano on the left-hand side of the stage, as well as occasionally picking up a guitar, trumpet, and drums. Similarly, Alex Ellsworth can be found planted behind a cello on the right-hand side of the stage, as well as playing guitar, drums, and even a fiddle supposedly made out of an old breastbone. Amanda Raquel picks up a guitar on several occasions, as well as what I believe was a ukulele. Rachel Guth doesn't pull out an instrument as frequently as the rest of the cast members, but when she does it's an autoharp, an instrument that I've heard of but never actually seen until this show. Since this is the section of the review covering vocals and instruments, I have a warning for those with sensitive ears: this is a very loud show at times, so I would suggest finding seats towards the back to avoid painful noise levels. Ghost Quartet is a fascinating production that deals with life, death, life after death, and everything in between. The fact that the characters are ghosts makes it all the more interesting, seeing the cast switch between people and time periods at a moment's notice, allowing the show to tell several different stories, all that come together to tell the tale of one broken heart. So if you enjoy nonlinear story telling and ghosts, go see Ghost Quartet,  you definitely won't regret making this choice. Ghost Quartet by Black Button Eyes Productions continues through August 17 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets are $30 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Show lasts 90 minutes with no intermission. Show contains many references to alcohol, as well as cursing
Picture of the author
James Brod

James Brod recently graduated from Dominican University, with a degree in political science. Ironically, he had previously considered majoring in journalism, but didn’t want to write for a living. Funny how things turn out, isn’t it? You can find him wandering the northwest suburbs, or on Twitter at @JamesBrod12.