The best moment of Gorey Stories is its very first, when the lights come up on one of the most visually stunning group of creeps ever to wander onto a Tampa Bay area stage. Nine ghoulish humans, all dressed in elaborate, black-and-white 19th-century outfits out of Kipling by way of Poe, stare out at us from their whited faces with the bemused expressions of aliens suddenly beamed down onto an unknown planet.
On Brian Smallheer’s spooky gray set, these ghostly creatures, brilliantly costumed by Katrina Stevenson, are more than characters about to inhabit a play: They’re a work of art themselves, a mesmerizing, tantalizing visual experience, the likes of which Bay area theater, with its incessant realism, has seldom — perhaps never before — offered.
So even before the first word is spoken, we’re prepared for something special. Jobsite Theater has over the last few years become one of the most exciting, innovative companies anywhere in Florida. Is Gorey Stories going to take its artists — and us — to yet another height?
Then the play begins — and for 20 minutes or so we’re delighted. The macabre Edward Gorey tales that it illustrates — about murder, kidnapping, enslavement and other agonies — are funny in their hyper-gloomy way, so fraught with distress, pain and woe that we have to laugh as people do in really good haunted houses. Healthy minds don’t dwell on morbid subjects, right? But here’s Gorey and his pack of sufferers to tell us that the world is a torture chamber with a cemetery out back, that most lives end badly, that little Charlotte Sofia was just run over by her father, who didn’t recognize her and drove away. Macabre, yes, but fun — for about 20 minutes.
And then it starts to repeat itself.
No, it’s not that we see the same tale over and over; the problem is the subtext, the implied message about human reality. Gorey’s stories, as they first appeared decades ago in the New Yorker and elsewhere, were always uncomfortably enjoyable for a good three or four minutes, and then you could move on to that serious profile of Willy Brandt. But now we’re asked to sit in the Shimberg Playhouse for almost two hours, to watch 18 or so anecdotes, one after the other, with virtually no character development, just one improbably dreadful plot after the next.
And what was at first fresh and entertaining becomes more than a little tedious. “The Wuggly Ump” was fun at the start: “How uninviting areits claws!/ And even more so are its jaws.” But by the time of “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” — “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs/ B is for Basil assaulted by bears” — we’ve gotten the joke, more times than we can remember. Even the fine acting of the nine-member crew, and the splendid direction by David M. Jenkins, can’t rescue us from the feeling that we’re running in place.
Some of the sketches are more memorable than others, of course. For example: “The Hapless Child,” in which Summer Bohnenkamp-Jenkins plays Charlotte Sophia, whose parents die young, and who is placed in a school “where she was punished for things she hadn’t done.” She escapes this unjust institution only to be sold to “a drunken brute” who feeds her scraps and tap water. Charlotte nearly goes blind and, after her captor dies, runs into the street and is killed by a car. Sound dismal? Yes and no: All these tales are narrated tongue-in-cheek, with silly, exaggerated poses by both the victims and the perps. And in fact, Bohnenkamp-Jenkins is hilarious as Charlotte Sophia, wearing an eloquent frown from misfortune to misfortune and making it plain all the while that she’s not in any real distress. What’s true of “The Hapless Child” is true also of all the other sketches — it’s cleverly stylized and, in itself, a success. The problem, once again, isn’t quality but quantity.
And then there’s the most uncharacteristic of the stories, “The Curious Sofa.” This is Gorey’s take on old-fashioned pornography, and it’s ridiculously suggestive without ever becoming explicit. The heroine this time is Alice, who’s led by a series of strangers to engage in sexual acts repeatedly represented by euphemisms (and shown in silhouette behind a screen). So in a taxi cab “they did something Alice had never done before” and then Lady Celia “requested the girl to perform a rather surprising service.” Alice is helped to bed by a French maid “whom she found delightfully sympathetic” and next morning is “wakened in a novel fashion.” Meanwhile, we keep meeting men who are “extremely well-endowed,” “unusually well-formed” and “exceptionally well-made.” The star of this segment is Michael C. McGreevy who, as Albert the Butler, seems to have walked into the play from some Hall of Victorian Smut, and who apparently knows better than anyone that depravity is serious business. But Katrina Stevenson is very funny as Lady Celia, and if we never quite figure out what “terrible thing” Gerald did with a saucepan, it’s still refreshing to watch a Gorey tale that’s not ultimately about mortality.
There are other outstanding performers (and sketches): Jason Evans does a fine job as the easily distracted novelist C. F. Earbrass, and Steve Garland is superb as opera fan (and asylum escapee) Jasper Ankle. The other actors — Roz Potenza, Jaime Giangrande-Holcom, David J. Valdez and Spencer Meyers — all turn in topnotch work, and the three-piece band, consisting of piano, cello and flute, is about as professional as one could want. There’s also some admirable, if not terribly relevant, singing.
But when playwright Stephen Currens decided to adapt Gorey’s stories for the stage, he must not have realized that, at the core, they were mostly the same: tales of mayhem and star-crossed destiny taken to a ludicrous extreme. The challenge, then, was to keep us interested in this subject for almost two hours. Unfortunately, this challenge wasn’t met.
Overall, Gorey Stories, for all its surface inventiveness is … boring.
Yet again, Mark likes everything but the play itself. Heh. This guy is hard to please. Still, I don’t personally see this as a bad review. I think those who would find two hours of “delicious darkness” could be interested after reading this review.
Depravity IS serious business. For reals, yo.