Black Button Eyes Productions at City Lit Theater. By Stephin Merritt and David Greenspan. Directed by Edward Rutherford. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Neil Gaiman’s 2002 novella for young readers falls square in the subgenre of be-careful-what-you-wish-fulfillment. Young self-dubbed explorer Coraline is bored to tears in her family’s new home, a large old house that’s been chopped into flats. There are quirky adult neighbors—a squabbling pair of retired actresses on one side, an odd trainer of circus mice upstairs—but no one her own age around, and Coraline feels both hemmed in and neglected by her workaholic parents.
Her wished-for attention comes when the ominously bricked-up door to the empty flat is suddenly unbricked. On the other side, Coraline finds an eerie mirror image of her own home, complete with a smothering Other Mother and Other Father. But when things get too creepy—and Coraline discovers the souls of Other Mother’s long-previous adopted children, still trapped in this invented world—it’s up to Coraline and the local cat, who can move between worlds, to “be wise, be brave, be tricky,” and escape.
This 2009 sort-of-musical adaptation, by musician Stephin Merritt (of the Magnetic Fields and many other monikers) and playwright David Greenspan, has its moments of inventive charm, much of which comes from Merritt’s plinky, plaintive score. The music, which mostly comes in wispy snippets rather than full songs, is written for three separate pianos: a regular upright, a toy piano and an altered, purposefully off-tune baby grand.
Director Edward Rutherford, who formed the ad hoc Black Button Eyes Productions for the purpose of producing this Chicago premiere, creates a number of striking devices: Whenever the ubiquitous fog is mentioned, for instance, it’s created by clapping chalkboard erasers; the lost souls appear out of total darkness as a trio of floating baby-doll heads, creepily lit from within.
Rutherford seems not to be grasping as desperately for twee as the original production, which cast 50-something actor Jayne Houdyshell in the preteen title role for instant whimsy. Coraline here is played by young adult newcomer Sheridan Singleton, who’s likable if not always audible. She’s surrounded by some strong talents, including Ryan Lanning evil-ing it up as Other Mother and Kevin Webb, perfectly preening as the fedora-clad cat.
Still, Rutherford hasn’t overcome the central problem of the story’s slightness. Gaiman’s imprimatur aside, Coraline’s story is not greatly distinguishable from dozens of others like it. And writer Greenspan hasn’t so much adapted it for the stage as staged a reading. It’s tricky, indeed.