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Arts and Entertainment

Edward Gorey Returns From The Dead

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It's the end of October and it's time for gore. If you haven't made your Halloween plans yet, look no further - Gorey Stories, the creepy musical based on the works of macabre illustrator Edward Gorey, has been extended at the Sacred Fools Ensemble through Nov. 13.

A is for Amy who fell down the stairs
B is for Basil assaulted by bears
C is for Clara who wasted away
D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh...

These calmly malevolent lines from Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an alphabet book of dying children, are some of his best-known work, and they open Gorey Stories. The fast-paced musical incorporates vignettes from all of Gorey's oeuvre, from sexual sofas to rhyming monsters, from beasts to bestial, from maudlin to malevolent, from Rose Marshmary to the Osbick Bird and Little Charlotte Sophia. A troupe of whitefaced dancers takes up one story after another, and are reborn as new characters just as soon as they die.

Gorey Stories was had a successful run off-Broadway in the late 70s, but its move to the Booth Theatre on Broadway in 1978 was a disaster. This faithful adaptation of Gorey's work (by Stephen Currens, with music by David Aldrich) needs, in our opinion, an irreverent, off-kilter home - like the Sacred Fools Ensemble - to be appreciated. We're lucky to have it here in Los Angeles under Pat Towne's direction, and with this gruesome cast of Gorey goblins.

Gorey wrote illustrated stories, usually no longer than forty panels long, in which violent death and supense are either the order of the day or the denouement. Some of his works are no longer than a sonnet, and when spoken aloud, they fly by quickly. We thought Gorey Stories was at its best when incident followed incident with breathtaking speed, like the addition of new characters in The Curious Sofa or the rapid approach of terror in the Wuggly Ump. It was harder to watch the longer episodes like the Willowdale Handcar and the story of a overwrought opera singer. But, like in any good short story collection, something new and different was always a few screams away.

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The stacatto acrobatic performances of the ensemble made Gorey Stories seem like a stop-motion merry-go-round. One moment someone is standing up talking, the next they've collapsed on the floor, and the next they're being dragged offstage. One quick costume change later, they're back on as one of the Insect God's legs or the hands of the Curious Sofa. No one sits backstage for long. Doll-faced Ryan Templeton and the towering Joe Jordan stand out in a great cast of tumbling clowns, mimes, drunks, and dancers. We also adored Pat Towne as the obsessed opera fan Jasper Winkle.

In the second act, the story of the frustrated novelist, Mr C.F. Earbrass (an outraged, bemoustached Henry Dittman), is used to incorporate more Gorey vignettes. Earbrass tries to tell one story and gets sidetracked by others. Gorey-as-Earbrass has to deal with revolts against his authorial plan by his characters - particularly one "Loathsome Couple," (Templeton and Jordan, again, right out of Silence of the Lambs.) The best moment in Gorey Stories occurs when Earbrass, beset by his characters, runs up a flight of stairs, hears the audience laughing, and stares at them in shock. To Earbrass (and perhaps also to Gorey) other people are as frightening as the Wuggly Ump, and to be watched is to be threatened. Earbrass hurries down the stairs and back behind the fourth wall, but the moment is unforgettable.

Gorey's style is lovingly copied in the draperies and staircases of Joel Daavid's set (we were impressed by the hand-drawn false proscenium curtains), and Ann Closs-Farley's Gothic costumes and masks walk that fine line between childlike, sexual, and clownish. Jessie Marion's acrobatic choreography is abrupt and delightful. Our favorite part was the way that the actors fling the props off stage when they're done with them, just as they fly through the curtains to die. But the real star of the Gorey design team is Cricket Sloat's artful lighting design, which always gives just enough light to see by and just enough darkness to be frightening. The show begins abruptly with a total blackout and no warning, and the lighting continues to be surprising. Gorey Stories is accompanied by live music throughout, including Douglas Lee on glasses and saw (yes, saw!)

Gorey Stories performs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7 pm through Nov. 13, with a special Halloween performance on Monday, Oct. 31 at 8 pm. Tickets are $20 ($30 for the Halloween costume party). Reservations: (310) 281-8337 or online. The Sacred Fools Theater is at 660 North Heliotrope, half a block south of Melrose, between Normandie and Vermont. Highly contested street parking is available (get there early!) or stacked parking in a lot by the theater for $5.

Gorey was born in 1925 and died (one hopes, abruptly) of a heart attack on April 15, 2000. This obituary, "Rory Dagweed Succumbs," doesn't say whether or not he fell headlong into a giant urn, but one thing is for certain - the Osbick Bird is still sitting on his headstone.