Behind the Paper and Pen – The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey

GOREY Andy & Doubt

 

 

by Monica Charline Brown

 

Breathing life into a play assumed to be biographical at heart, Life Jacket Theatre Company has created an eccentric and relatable piece of art through GOREY: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey, currently running at HERE. Rather than a linear account of the artist’s achievements, dual-playwright/director Travis Russ chooses to focus on the layers not known by the general public. Jumping back and forth in time over the course of fifty years, the audience gathers a quaint, picturesque, and conversational outlook of the man behind the pictures and stories.

 

Upon entering the theatre, it is clear the space has been carefully crafted and is lush with history. Towering shelves fill the area, stuffed with books, stacks of paper, boxes, jars, suitcases, and knick-knacks galore. The back wall of the stage is neatly arranged with rows and columns of eight and a half by eleven page sheets. Further investigation shows these are all drawings and notations of Gorey. The ushers urge approaching audience members to hop on the set and explore closer.

 

GOREY Butterfly

 

Andrew Dawson comes onstage, saying the show will begin in a few minutes, and gives some announcements. Suddenly, without warning, Dawson is revealed as Gorey 1 (around age seventy-five, when he passed away in 2000) and the play is off to a momentous start. Soon, Aidan Sank (Gorey 2 – middle-aged) and Phil Gillen (Gorey 3 – twenties) join Dawson and hark a partnership both amongst each other and the audience that is charming and relationship building. The three men do a fine job of seamlessly transitioning between their actor selves and their respective portrayals of Gorey. Each crafts a characterization that seems to fully lift up the essence of Gorey.   Gillen exposes his naïve and frustrated innocence, Sank his gradual and quirky acceptance of genius, and finally, Dawson’s contemplative recognition of solitude. The actors’ speaking voices also remarkably lined up with the recordings of actual interviews with Gorey played throughout the piece.

 

In fact, the playwright paid a visit to The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin. He sifted through their collection on Edward Gorey, which included hundreds of writings, sketches, and personal correspondence. This kind of attention to detail seems to beckon towards the most interesting aspect of the play: peculiar dimension.   Based on Gorey’s original words and derived from a mixture of journals and letters coalesced with the few public interviews, all of the loose ends history doesn’t have a handle on are reimagined with quite a creative spin.  The funniest tidbit was the tendency for him to lie about his personal life to reporters, proven by conflicting accounts provided in the production. Instead of getting hung up on that factor as a potential story-telling flaw, the play beautifully uses it as a technique to investigate Gorey’s “secret lives.”

 

GOREY Aidan & Phil Phono

 

The author calls the play a “fantasy memoir,” and I could not think of a more appropriate classification. Memories effortlessly trigger more memories as the actors find more and more clues and dig deeper into the mess that was Gorey. They are assisted by elaborate and clever projections by John Narun. My favorite had to be Andrew Dawson climbing into the lighting of the projection screen so he could interact in a well-played skit with one of Gorey’s most beloved characters, “The Doubtful Guest.” Likewise, Elizabeth’s Ostler’s puppetry design perfectly captured the child-like and imaginative behavior that led to Gorey’s satirical children’s stories with broader adult themes. Katie Proulx’s choreography included a comedic tribute with the three actors paying homage to Gorey’s fascination with Balanchine, and Peri Granim-Leong provided costuming that completed each individual Gorey character. I love that all three donned white high-top Converse, just like his drawing, “The Doubtful Guest.”

 

Most importantly, the question of leaving a lasting legacy is brought to the forefront. As Gorey realizes he has shut out relationships and made the complete transition to solitary confinement, we find ourselves wondering how do we prioritize our work and our personal life in sufficient balance? The enigmatic character of Gorey draws out the purely human longing of wanting to be noticed and wanting to be heard. As we discover the man behind the myth, we leave the theater with more questions than we anticipated, and isn’t that always the goal?

 

 

GOREY: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey. Running through Sunday May 22 at HERE (145 Ave of the Americas). For more information and tickets, visit www.LifeJacketTheatre.org or here.org or call 212-352-2101.

 

 

Photos: Jenny Anderson

 

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