The Secret's Out

Gorey: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey is a delicious observation of a well-lived, if secret, life that is easily enjoyable even if one hasn’t heard of the subject. A writer, illustrator, and animator who is best known for his macabre cartoon books for children, such as The Doubtful Guest and The Unstrung Harp, and the opening graveyard credits of the PBS series Mystery!, Gorey left a treasure trove of ephemera and memorabilia when he passed away in 2000. Drawing from 1,074 items in Gorey’s home, writer and director Travis Russ has crafted an engaging script, assembled a trio of charming and vibrant actors and a production team that bring to life a vision of the artist, brimming with creativity. 

Phil Gillen, Aidan Sank, and Andrew Dawson play Gorey at three stages of his life: in his early 20s after college, in his late 30s, and just before his death, in his mid-70s. They interact easily with one another and occasionally break the fourth wall to address the audience. Although the dialogue carries an undercurrent of “What would you tell your younger self?” it has much more to it.

In one instance, it’s clear the older Gorey (Dawson) knows the answers to the younger Gorey’s query but won’t say, leaving the younger version (Gillen) visibly shaken. In the moments where the older Gorey relives events from earlier days, Dawson shines. Sank, the middle-aged Gorey, delves into the collection of vintage postcards of dead children with curiosity and deference. What is unique about the actors is that all three share similarities, including mannerisms and inflections. However, each delivers the attributes of the character in keeping with his period of Gorey’s life.

Russ and Carl Vorwerk, who designed the set, fill the intimate space with memorabilia, creating an atmosphere in keeping with Gorey’s collecting habits. Three tall, open-shelving units are filled with leather traveling cases, LPs (including Balanchine, a Gorey favorite), a Harvard scarf, and a myriad of notebooks. The back wall is complete with hundreds of 8½” x 11 sheets of paper with Gorey’s drawings and writings.

Lighting and projection designer John Narun uses the wall  to display videos including a clever projection where the elder Gorey “climbs” into a white frame and draws moving characters on the wall. Narun’s lighting is brilliantly crisp and dramatic. At times it is so striking that, when Gillen and Sank are seated around the writing table, their shadows on the back wall subtly appear to move in and out from a single person. Sound designer Emma Wilk with music arrangement by Chad Stoffel have an absolutely blast with an old phonograph using music from the 1940s as well as creative sound effects, in particular for the 8mm film projection.
 
Gorey was known for his passion for cats, and in his later years wrote puppet shows complete with libretto. In homage, Russ writes for the elder Gorey: “I’m currently working on Madama Butterfly. It’s just community theater, but it fills the days. Now, I must warn you, this is not your standard, traditional Madama Butterfly. It is a modern—slightly bastardized—version. Very pastiche.” He goes on to say that the part of Madama Butterfly is played by a homeless Abyssinian cat, here created by puppetry designer Elizabeth Ostler and manipulated by Gillen and Sank.

There is a moment or two near the end where Gorey falters and seems unsure where it should end. The scenes and transitions linger a little too long, and it’s evident that the play is winding down, but when? Having used a voice-over interview previously, the use of it again seemed redundant for the finale.

For the greater part of the evening, Gorey is smart and cleverly crafted from the things the quixotic artist left behind. Gillen, Sank, and Dawson make the absolute most with the great material provided, as well as one another, in a well-equipped playground. Even seated with their backs to a third of the house, they never forget the audience, engaging them at every turn. The young Gorey enjoys one of the best lines, “You know, my friend Ted Shawn, the choreographer—he used to say, “When in doubt, twirl.” Gorey never has to resort to twirling.

Gorey: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey is playing at HERE, 145 Avenue of the Americas through May 22. (Entrance is on Dominick Street one block south of Spring Street.). Take C/E trains to Spring Street stop. Tickets are $18, For more Information and tickets, visit  www.LifeJacketTheatre.org or here.org, or call 212-352-3101. 

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