Written and directed by Travis Russ
Featuring Andrew Dawson, Phil Gillen, Aiden Sank
Life Jacket Theatre Co @ SubletSeries@HERE
April 30, 2016 – May 22, 2016
In the basement performance space at HERE, Life Jacket Theatre Company presents a mesmerizing single-character seventy-five-minute theatrical experience, with three performers, at least four puppets, projected images and animation, what the stage directions reference as a “set littered with memory” (deftly executed by set designers Carl Vorwerk and the writer/director Travis Russ), and a sound design by Emma Wilk evoking popular music from prior eras and the surf of Cape Cod. Time morphs, illustrator Edward Gorey’s life (1925-2000) and character is disassembled and reassembled in shards, as layers, to create a sense of a singular artist’s life. This is not a history nor a recitation of facts and years and life events so much as a theatrical treatment of the warp and weft of Gorey’s life post college, expressed and shared as sense memory, with pictures.
The upstage wall (my post show wanderings verify) is completely covered with document scraps that are dramaturgically linked to plot points in the script and are often used as a projection screen for set design images such as an overstuffed library in Gorey’s house or falling snow, or for animation featuring Gorey’s penquin-like “Doubt.” The story-telling, we are told, is informed by these scraps from journals and detritus unearthed at Gorey’s long-term Cape Cod home, our play’s primary setting, after his death, in speeches delivered first the actor playing Gorey 1 (Andrew Dawson), joined by his brother Gorey dimensions Gorey 2 (Aidan Sank) and Gorey 3 (Phil Gillen). The characters are perversely numbered in reverse order — “Gorey 1” is Gorey in his 70s, “Gorey 2” is Gorey in his 30s, and “Gorey 3” is Gorey in his post-graduate 20s. Told in sometimes confusing scraps that eventually make sense, we begin Gorey’s story in the mid-20th century when he is a few years out of Harvard, a freshly-minted French major with artistic aspirations. The actors deliver soliloquys, discuss events with each other as Gorey and not-Gorey, consistently in costume if not in character.
The Gorey of fact might have been a scary hoarder on the scale of the Collyer Brothers (who were entombed in their own piles in a Harlem townhouse), and there are many cats discussed in the script (and a fabulous cat puppet, among the creatures crafted by puppet designer Elizabeth Ostler), but we are not led to believe that Gorey sinks into Grey Gardens disarray. He collects wildly and barricades himself in his home, becoming reclusive rather than buried in his collections of Victorian dead baby pictures and old typewriters and leather luggage and books.
GOREY 1 (re: an imaginary trunk downstage)
Oh, and I bought that steamer trunk over fifty years ago for only five bucks if you can
believe that. It’s filled with three hundred pounds of rusting metal objects.
I put the trunk by the front door so everyone can see it when they walk in!
I moved it so it blocks the front door and keeps everybody out!
Moving backwards and forwards in time, we thrill to the first visits to the Cape Cod house in which Gorey would live the last 50 years of his life, and hear reflections on life lived in New York City with what might have been a-sexual loves, including George Balanchine. There’s a long sequence on recollections of obsessive visits to the ballet and an oddball and poorly reviewed 1971 ballet called Pamtgg, inspired by a Pan Am airlines commercial, that in turn inspires in this piece a terrific sequence involving the three Goreys choreographed by Katie Proulx. Elizabeth Ostler’s marvelous puppets animate the action in entirely different theatrical ways: a life-sized cat manipulated by two of the Goreys jumps into the arms of the third, and tiny figurine puppets with which each Gorey plays on one of the wheeled shelving units packed with storeroom collections (typewriters, luggage, bird cages, boxes, papers). We gradually realize that the tiny figures that each Gorey manipulates is a tiny version of himself, climbing over the props, becoming part of the scene, navigating his life. The show is not about the creative process so much as a theatrical experience in which we capture hints and possibilities.
Dramaturgy literally plays here as set design. Travis Russ’s Gorey is a poetic assembly of facts and life elements, exquisitely performed and delicately presented in the intimate HERE basement theater. Gorey shares the sensibility of a person in pieces gradually assembled, evoking his world, inviting us in.
© Martha Wade Steketee (May 13, 2016)
Playwright + Director | Travis Russ
Set Design | Travis Russ + Carl Vorwerk
Lighting + Projection Design | John Narun
Sound Design | Emma Wilk
Costume Design | Peri Grabin-Leong
Puppetry Design | Elizabeth Ostler
Choreography | Katie Proulx
Dramatury | Anthony Dvarskas