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Four Apocalyptic Horsemen

The COVID Granny Diaries

Dark days have descended on America. “The worst crisis in modern American history,” is what the pundits call it. They are wrong. The situation we face will loom large in human history. Even when one event of this magnitude has befallen us—the Black Plague, the Irish Potato Famine, World War—historians have marked down the calamity for all time. Right now, America has four world class catastrophes happening all at once: a massive plague, widespread hunger, half a million deaths with no signs of slowing, and now, if our domestic terrorists get what they want, civil war.

It’s like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—Famine, Pestilence, War, and Death—are doing the great American road trip together, riding sea to shining sea, but leaving total destruction in their dust. These four represent “punishments from God” in the Bible, where they are mentioned three places (Ezekiel, Zacharia, and Revelations).

Famine's bodice is made of kombucha leather and reeds. The fruit has been burned to look rotten.

Fittingly in the shadow of this moment, Eliza’s team at Boston University’s Theater Arts Graduate Program chose the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as their fall semester project. Normally, the costume production teams make elaborate outfits for actual productions at the Booth Theater, but since COVID hit, they have had to produce work from home that no one would ever see but themselves and the faculty.

Boston University has been exemplary in their protections against the coronavirus. When it first appeared, the university ended the semester abruptly after spring break, so students wouldn’t be coming back from holiday bringing infection with them. That was necessary because (remember!) at that time we really did not know much about COVID, even how it was transmitted, and it looked as if the university could not have kept anyone on their campus safe. In the fall term, the students returned. For the most part, classes have been held remotely. When on campus, everyone is required to wear a mask and social distance. All the students are required to get a COVID test once a week, which BU provides and processes. Student compliance is monitored by the administration. I assume that any positive tests are contact-traced by the university. If students don’t show up for their test, the administration badgers them to get one; if students wait too long, the university cuts off their WiFi and their building access.

Liza’s production team set up a “bubble” (some call it a “pod”) where they all self-isolated and checked in with each other about any exposure, symptoms, etc. They were scrupulously honest within the group, not least because one of their members has a heart condition. So, I have felt pretty reassured about Liza’s protection all this time. (We will never know whether she got it in Santa Clara in February, so we still have to be careful.)

Death's face is pieced together with shards from Halloween masks.

In January 2019, soon after Liza was accepted to the BU program, she flew to Boston from San Francisco, where she had been working for the San Francisco Opera for six years, and we looked for apartments together. We spent four soul-destroying days shopping for a place that was spacious enough, affordable, and would take Liza’s dog, Pete. Liza was so discouraged, she was crying on the way back to the airport. We had one more apartment to look at but couldn’t do it before her flight, so I was commissioned to go see the apartment after she left and to rent it, if it had all the “must haves.” If the apartment did not work, I was to keep looking until I found something.

Under the best circumstances, it’s scary to look for a place for another adult to live. But Liza had also just been through a divorce, so she was emotionally a little beat up. She was moving east to go to school and be near her family for the first time in a decade, but she was also trying to recreate herself, start over again, find a new way to live.

Pestilence's face is made of worbla. The pins on the shoulders are surgical devices soldered together. The arms are wrapped in gauze bandages.

Eliza was filled with the combination of trepidation and exhilaration that comes in such times. I know because I went through it when her father and I broke up (and I went back to school). I also know how important times like this are: you are choosing your destiny and preparing to go there. I wanted conditions to be right for her to come out happy on the other end.

All that meant I really needed to find a good place. I was blessed: that very apartment I saw after Eliza got on the plane fit the bill and more. It had a surprising amount of space, lots of light, a bathroom with a big claw-foot tub, and a balcony just large enough for two people to come over for sangria in the summer. There were dogs in the building. It was in a nice neighborhood (Liza called it “bourgie”). Best of all, it had a second bedroom that could be used as a studio. Even though it was more bang for the buck than the other places we had seen, the apartment was still pretty pricey. That meant a strain on the money she had put together for this return to grad school, but the place was really good, so I took it anyway.

And thank god I took that leap. Liza loved it immediately and now says she's never leaving. Then, BAM!, the virus hit and she was confined to that space, having to do all her work in it.

She has really needed that second bedroom. For the Four Horsemen project, every room in her apartment became part of the factory.

Each team member took a Horseman. Eliza made Death, while her teammates did War (Amanda Caswell), Pestilence (Grace Saathoff), and Famine (Evan Petrow).

Liza’s design for Death called for an ombré dress, a faceless mirrored mask, a crown of sticks, and huge dark wings. She had learned dyeing at the Opera, so she dyed the fabric for the dress herself in a large pot on her kitchen stove, then hung it up to dry over the big old bathtub. She created the feathers for the wings, hand painting each one in the studio. The faceless mask was made using two mirror Halloween masks, cutting one into shards to attach to the other. The twigs for the crown were picked up around Liza's bourgie neighborhood. The wings were too big to do anywhere but the living room, so she spread out on the rug and put it all together. When it was assembled, Death looked great.

The other costumes were just as complex and made out of stuff I had to google like worbla, tyvek, and kombucha leather (made by fermenting kombucha and bacteria—yuck). Pestilence has fingers made of Soviet syringes bought off Etsy and brooches made of soldered surgical instruments. War was hand-sculpted from worbla and the skirt was made from metal house-siding.

Her whole team, in fact, did an awesome job. They put the display on a turntable stage at school and took lots of pictures. There was no audience this time. That’s one reason I’m writing this blog about it—otherwise, no one outside the Theater School at BU will see this fabulous stuff. At least the artists will have something for their portfolios.

This is the kind of thing COVID has brought to the arts. The BU department/program has a 99 percent placement rate, but who knows what the job market for them will be like after 18+ months during which stages everywhere were shut down. Already, the outfit Liza wanted to work for, Cirque du Soleil, has gone bankrupt (and come back).

We are apprehensive. Liza and I have a big investment in this degree. With luck, things will open up before she finishes and all of America will stampede out to events, including plays. If that happens, there will be jobs.

While waiting for the future to arrive, Liza’s team will spend this coming semester making puppets for a children’s theater. Liza’s first MFA was actually in puppet-making; she will shine on this. And surely this project holds a better omen than the last.

Meantime, out in the real world, the Four Horsemen continue their rampage. More dark days still ahead.


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