Time Out Chicago

Haute Rats
Doyle Armbrust

There’s no shortage of comic-books-to-big-screen adaptations, from the absinthe-riddled From Hell to the guilty superhero pleasures of Iron Man. But with Black Violet, Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble (5HE) reimagines the graphic novel in an original way.

Since it began in 2005, the creative new-music ensemble has infused its diverse programs with dance, haute cuisine, theater, film and even wine making. “We help people who don’t have a context for listening to classical,” 5HE executive director Melissa Snoza tells us. Underground illustrator Ezra Claytan Daniels puts it another way: “There’s no celebrity-culture baby-mama drama to get people to listen to Brahms!”

For this season, 5HE educational programming director Crystal Hall mined local artists’ racks at comic-book shops to find potential indie collaborators for the group’s most ambitious endeavor yet—a scored and animated graphic novel to be performed and projected live. “We’d been exploring visual storytelling through our commedia dell’arte series with silent-film-inspired photography and slides,” Snoza explains. “It gives audience members something to latch on to.”

After deciding that a one-artist, one-story approach would be most compelling, the group settled on Sioux City–born Daniels. “We loved the look of the art and the honest and intelligent storytelling,” Snoza says of Daniels’s graphic novel, The Changers, and line of greeting cards, Loaded Blanks.

Daniels had already been contemplating a Black Plague–era graphic novel, an idea he got from his girlfriend, who was studying for her master’s in early modern history at University of Chicago. “She told me about the scapegoating of black cats as a carrier of plague, and I kind of fell in love with the idea right away,” Daniels says. “There was such a dramatic irony in how the slaughtering of London’s cats led directly to a proliferation of the rats who were the actual carriers of the disease.”

When 5HE sent him recordings of its pieces intended for the project, the 30-year-old pleasantly found the music “darker, a little bit more modern, non-mandolin-y stuff”—perfect for his tragic, 17th-century epic.

Black Violet’s protagonist is Violet, an upper-class London house cat whose doctor owner doesn’t return after leaving to care for plague victims. Her venture outside the apartment is fraught with near-death encounters with hunters and cruel bulldogs, and she’s ultimately left to rely on the aid of a mysterious albino rat, Tibia.

The artist wanted to employ a grotesque William Hogarth–esque style for Black Violet but faced the grueling task of producing 1,200 images. He turned to Flash animation, a computerized puppet-like technique; Daniels scanned in hand-drawn elements of each character (expressions, arms, torsos, legs) and repositioned the digital marionettes in each frame. The results are astonishing, with extraordinarily emotive feline and rodent features.

5HE’s accompanying soundtrack traverses a wide range of the chamber-music repertoire, from the Brahms Horn Trio, Op. 40, to John Harbison’s Quintet for Winds. The troupe also includes a piece by the grand-prize winner of its 2009 Young Composer Competition, Jonathan Keren, a recent Juilliard grad who’d arranged works for military bands while serving in the Israeli army. At both SPACE in Evanston and the Chicago Cultural Center’s Claudia Cassidy Theater, the finished work will be presented over three installments in October, February and April (“Act I: The Leagues of Despair” premieres this week).

“The subject matter lends itself to pointed comments on topical subjects like race and class, as well as timeless themes like ignorance and morality,” Daniels says. “[It’s] just a dark tragedy centered around talking animals.”

View the original article on the Time Out Chicago website.


Fifth House Ensemble

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