Open Circle Theatre, 382-4250. $15. Through Feb 24.
"Still later, Gerald did a terrible thing to Elsie with a saucepan." Edward Gorey was a sick and black-hearted little shit. Sadly, I discovered his genius late in life and have only recently fallen in love with his spare, ghoulish sketches and morbid, elegant prose. Now, on particularly dismal days, I gather my collection of his more gleeful and tortured publications, make a hot cup of tea, and laugh my jaded fanny sore as pale, sad schoolchildren are eaten alive by mice, and sweet old ladies are brained by falling monoliths. When Mr. Gorey plopped dead himself barely a year ago, a chunk of my twisted little soul plopped dead with him.
But even though my passion for Gorey's insanity is relatively new, it still burns hot. So when I caught wind that Open Circle Theater was producing (are you ready?) a musical based on Gorey's works, I was thrilled--and a little concerned. I trusted Open Circle to appreciate the humor in beating a small, sick animals to death with rocks, but the fact that anyone would even mention the name of Gorey in the same sentence as the sunshiny-bright and generally obnoxious word "musical" seemed blasphemous. I figured that if this show was wonderful, I'd compensate for all of the adulation I failed to shower upon Gorey while he was still kicking by letting the world know exactly how good it was. If it turned out to be awful, well....
Open Circle bills Gorey Stories as a musical, but it is really much more. It's a wonderful, multifaceted journey through the dismal and hilarious land of Gorey--a windy, ruined landscape where the sun never shines, life is fragile, and dead people are funny. Open Circle immediately eased my fears about a Gorey musical by choosing the perfect type of music: a warbling, spare cacophony of piccolo, piano, triangle, and various horns that weaves in and around the prose. Far from detracting from the text, it brings it to a whole new level. But Open Circle does more than just set Gorey's poems to music-- each vignette is fleshed-out, multidimensional, and unique. Whole subtexts were written to accompany Gorey's original plots, adding new depth and personality. "The Wuggly Ump," for instance, in which a dragon-like monster devours playful little children, is told through shadow puppets, accompanied by an operatic score. "The Insect God," in which a pretty young girl is abducted from a park and fed to giant bugs, is presented as an old-school, sepia-toned film short! No avenue of creativity went unexplored in bringing Gorey's miserable, ink-scratched characters to life.
But the most fun and well- executed tale is "The Loathsome Couple"--its humor stemming from the utter blandness of it all. Mona and Harold, the villains, move from their pathetic childhoods of malaise and indifference to dismal adulthoods of petty crime. They eventually meet and, unsuccessfully, marry (they "fumble with each other in a cold woodshed" after watching true crime films, and when attempting to make love, their "strenuous and prolonged efforts came to nothing"). Finally, they embark upon their "life's work": luring small children to their gruesome deaths in a "remote and undesirable villa." In celebration of the murders, Harold and Mona dine on "corn flakes and treacle, turnip sandwiches and artificial grape soda." Their story is narrated as they move from picture-still tableaux to picture-still tableaux, thieving, fumbling, and murdering with the exact same bored, bland expressions on their faces. Darn funny stuff.
The cast was superbly chosen, a macabre crew that could be mistaken for the guests at Anne Rice's birthday party (so could the audience members, for that matter). Every actor wears several hats throughout, each displaying a wide range of talents. Esther Williamson and Jason Dittmer are of special note as Mona and Harold, and Marty Mukhalian (who won my adulation as Dr. Emma Brookner in The Normal Heart) and Ron Sandahl are brilliant as whatever characters they happen to be portraying at the moment.
An outrageous amount of talent and creativity went into this production--all liberally sprinkled atop Gorey's own genius, always complementing but never overshadowing. I am quite certain that the spirit of Edward Gorey is peering up from whatever happy circle of hell it has been consigned to and smiling.