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Theatre in Review: Gorey: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey (Life Jacket Theatre Company/Sheen Center)

Phil Gillen, Andrew Dawson, Aidan Sank. Photo: Jenny Anderson

Travis Russ, the writer and director of this odd, but beguiling, entertainment, has made the right decision in not attempting a straight-up biography of the illustrator and author Edward Gorey. It would surely be an impossible task; the man was as eccentric and elliptical as his books. Furthermore, he lived his life not in the world but at his drawing board, industriously turning out thousands of black-and-white cross-hatched sketches, each depicting a Victorian world marked by bizarre misfortune and inexplicable woe, populated by elaborately named characters that nearly always come to bad ends. And as for his personal life -- well, he didn't have one, did he?

Instead, Russ, taking an approach that might have pleased his subject, has assembled a series of brief, teasing scenes, many of them drawn from Gorey's own words, into a collage-like portrait of the artist as both a charming, divinely inspired kook and a profound loner. He has also assigned the role of Gorey to three actors: the twentysomething Phil Gillen, the middle-aged Aidan Sank, and the older Andrew Dawson, each of them presenting a distinct point of view that somehow adds up to a unified characterization. One of this production's grace notes is that, given a certain similarity in the actors' looks, you can plausibly imagine each one aging into his successor.

But who was Gorey, really? Given the camp nature of much of his work, his slightly effeminate manner, and his obsession with ballet and film, not to mention the fact that he never married and apparently had no romantic relationships with women -- one might very well assume he was gay. Then again, there's no evidence of any liaisons with men, either. Russ has Gorey announce, "I am fortunate in that I have always been terribly undersexed. A condition, for which, I'm somewhat grateful." That "somewhat" tantalizes; it is the peculiar achievement of Gorey that, in its sneaky, sideways way, it illuminates his singular existence while not presuming to solve the mystery at its core.

Much of the piece unfolds from the vantage point of Elephant House, the circa-1800 former sea captain's residence on Cape Cod that Gorey bought when he finally fled New York City. An inveterate pack rat, he loaded it with books and cats and various objects in astonishing profusion. Producing a steamer trunk that he purchased half a century earlier, he says, "It's filled with three hundred pounds of rusting metal objects." (We see a projection of a bedroom, the twin beds so laden with stuff that no one could possibly sleep in them.) Speaking of his housemates, he adds, definitively, "Seven cats is too many cats." He points out the tree branch that has grown through the wall, protruding into a room. He considers doing something about it, then concludes, "I think it kind of adds a little something to the place." No wonder he describes the house as "Faulknerian" -- among the many items listed in the inventory made after his death were 73 broken doorknobs and 93 VHS tapes of The Golden Girls.

That last detail is one of many that reveal Gorey as a cultural omnivore, combining an appreciation for the writings of Lady Murasaki, the 11th-century poet and novelist, with a devouring interest in Dallas, General Hospital, and Days of Our Lives. Also discovered among his possessions were 500 programs for New York City Ballet, "seventy-five autographed by George Balanchine. And fifteen with a personal note." If the script suggests that Gorey was, for a time, infatuated with the poet Frank O'Hara, his roommate at Harvard, the real love of his life may have been George Balanchine, whose ballets became the illustrator's chief obsession, apart from his work. Although he and Balanchine grew close, it was still a case of worship from afar; the choreographer was a noted lover of women and Gorey was, well, Gorey, whatever that may have been. The closest we get to the truth is the following piece of doubletalk: "Well, I think homosexuality is a serious problem for anyone who is, but, then, heterosexuality is a serious problem. And being a boy is a serious problem and being a girl is a serious problem. Lots of things are problems. Look, even Lesley Gore has her problems."

Gorey is staged with considerable ingenuity on a set designed by Russ and John Narun, which includes tall shelves loaded with random objects and backed by an upstage wall consisting of copies of Gorey pencil sketches, the latter serving as a screen for Narun's clever projections. (Narun also designed the graceful lighting.) At one point, Dawson "draws" on the screen the outline of a rejection letter from The New Yorker, which states, "The people in your pictures are too strange and the ideas, we think, are not funny. By way of suggestion, drawings of a less eccentric nature might find a more enthusiastic audience here." Later, he "draws" the penguin-like creature that is the protagonist of an early book, The Doubtful Guest, leading to a delightful animated sequence in which the artist and his subject interact. (Gorey, an avid producer of puppet shows on Cape Cod, at one point produces a beguiling little feline puppet, designed by Elizabeth Ostler; it is the star of his "slightly bastardized" version of Madama Butterfly.) Peri Grabin Leong designed the excellent costumes, which include one of the floor-length fur coats the favored by the artist. Emma Wilk's sound design includes the Cape Cod surf, rainstorms, and selections by Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Lesley Gore, and others.

All three actors are at home in their roles, fully convincing us that they represent one personality at different stages of his life. They team up beautifully, no more so than when recreating a bit of PAMTGG, a notorious, never-revived Balanchine disaster based on a commercial for Pan American World Airways. As the older Gorey, Dawson cuts the fussiest figure of the three, especially when dropping such alarming comments as, "I've been reading these books lately about crazed mass murderers, and I say to myself, 'There but for the grace of God...'" He also lip-synchs, with precision, to Edith Piaf singing "Milord." Sank delicately handles the moment when Gorey guiltily recalls not responding to, until it was too late, Balanchine's request for a deathbed visit, adding, in a faintly whining tone, that, after the great man's passing, "I thought: Now what? What on earth do I do now?" Gillen describes Gorey's highly improbable Army stint -- he was disciplined seventeen times -- noting, "I went AWOL every chance I could. I'd sneak into the mess hall and play my entire collection: Como, Mercer, the Andrews Sisters. A new concert every night." Especially telling is the moment when, facing his older selves, he asks, in some anguish, "Did something happen to me? When was it?"

The answer is not forthcoming, and it may never be. In any case, the drawings persist and people continue to read such ineffable works as The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Beastly Baby, and The Fatal Lozenge. (No mention is made of the hit Broadway revival of Dracula, with sets and costumes designed by him, nor of Gorey Stories, a one-night flop drawn from his works; it would have been interesting to know what he thought of them.) Gorey succeeds in bringing the man to life, highlighting his innate strangeness and arguing effectively that it may have been inseparable from a persistent loneliness. Near the end, he tells an interviewer who has asked if there is anything people don't understand about him, "I think I have to leave it up to them. But I'd prefer not to disappear completely. I would like to be read." On that point, anyway, he can rest easy. -- David Barbour

(22 December 2016)

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