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Recommended: Act II Of Fifth House's Black Violet

By Alexander Hough in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 28, 2010 8:00PM

On Monday and Thursday of next week, Fifth House Ensemble will present "The Great Exodus of the Tamed," the second act of their musical graphic novel Black Violet. The story is set during London's last plague outbreak in 1665, with Fifth House performing live music to accompany projected panels by Chicago-based artist Ezra Clayton Daniels.

For those who missed the October concerts, the first act of Black Violet tells of a content black house cat named Violet, who's left in the care of an elderly neighbor while her owner Barbara hits the London streets to help to the victims of the plague. After the catsitter becomes sick and dies, Violet is forced to leave her flat in search of Barbara and soon meets up with a disreputable pair, one a black cat named Dominic Saint Claire, the other an albino rat named Tibia. Violet learns that black cats are being blamed for the outbreak and are being rounded up for extermination. Even worse for Violet, she finds out that Dominic - her only aide in finding Barbara - and Tibia are selling information to humans about a mass gathering of black cats preparing for an exodus from their current persecution. To catch up fully, check out Fifth House's YouTube page for video from the October 6 performance.

It's a story starring small mammals - humans appear as little more than a stray limb here and there - but Black Violet is more Maus than An American Tale. (For those with feline sympathies, Black Violet is a refreshing change of pace from these two examples, both of which feature cats as genocidal maniacs - finally, a portrayal of cats as the underdogs they've been throughout most of Western history!) The themes aren't groundbreaking but are more sophisticated than might be expected: A naive yet noble heroine making her way in a world in crisis, her only companions amoral fatalists who believe in a "natural order" that preordains humans as violent overlords, dogs their unthinking toadies, and cats as fickle opportunists. The characters are well-developed given the limited face time (the visual element consists of panels, not animation) and the story is engaging. Credit is due to the thoughtful collaboration that combined Daniels's art and an eclectic musical program that included Brahms, Villa-Lobos, Piston, and a couple young contemporary composers.

The second act's music stays true to Fifth House's dedication to variety and will include works by Russian masters Dmitri Shostakovich (Piano Quintet in G Minor) and Sergei Prokofiev (Quintet for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and bass), as well as a piece by modern composer John Harbison (Quintet for Winds) and a cover of the Queen song "Death on Two Legs" (arranged by Craig Marks).

Monday's performance at the Cultural Center is free, and if you get a table at the show on Thursday at SPACE, you'll also get Goose Island Matilda and cheese from Whole Foods.

Monday, February 1, at Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E Washington, 7:00 p.m., FREE; Thursday, February 4, at SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston, 8:00 p.m., beer and food at 7:30 p.m., $25 reserved table seat, $15 general admission, $12 students