Critic’s Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Through Nov. 18. Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 4 p.m. Shimberg Playhouse, Straz Center, Tampa. Encore mini-concert tribute to The Tiger Lillies. $28, strazcenter.org.
The Halloween season pukes out tacky festivities like a trick-or-treater overdosing on Skittles. Thankfully, Jobsite Theater has shed some dark at the end of the tunnel with its playfully wicked Gorey Stories.
An ode to Edward Gorey (1925-2000), writer and artist of the macabre, Gorey Stories is a series of vignettes based on stories, limericks and poetry from his Amphigorey series. Actors recite in unison and take turns narrating and singing the tales in an adaptation by Stephen Currens (book) and David Aldrich (music).
Jobsite first produced the musical back in 2007. Its revamp has a tighter ensemble cast and adds a live band (Jeff Temple on drums, Alan Thomas, standup bass, and Parker J. Wilkson on piano). In addition to Aldrich’s original score, the group performs a mini-encore of three selections from The Gorey End, an album by The Tiger Lillies and Kronos Quartet that was created in collaboration with the author.
The writings adapted from Gorey for the show include the “The Wuggly Ump,” about a dragon-like monster that devours kids; “The Curious Sofa,” a trifle of adult debauchery (staged with a cool sight gag); and “The Gashleycrumb Tinies,” the author’s famous alphabet of childhood doom. Ill-fated tots, murder, insanity and depraved sexuality aside, the stories escape being overly morose by way of their mirth and quotable naughtiness. With an air of aloof mischief, Gorey takes pity on the human condition and all of its foibles.
Jobsite’s reprise of this macabre cabaret is even better than expected. No longer haunted by the super-intensity of the company’s early years — seriously, you needed earplugs at some of their shows — Jobsite avoids the histrionics that would lay waste to the delicate deadpan of Gorey Stories. A careful touch is needed to interpret the tales’ anemic sophistication — and director David M. Jenkins handles with care. Cast and crew take the trip back to Goreyland with just the right balance of droll confidence and gonzo outrageousness.
Production elements cohere, as if magically, and Jenkins’ sense of pitch is spot on, allowing the actors to unleash their special brand of cray-cray at just the right moments. Brian Smallheer’s selective use of spotlights imparts an ominous mood while Christen Petitt-Hailey’s Haunted-Mansion-esque set pieces lend twisted humor. Katrina Stevenson’s costume/makeup designs are utterly stunning. Her black, white and gray motif incorporates so many cool eras — Day of the Dead, commedia dell’arte, Victorian aristocracy, turn-of-the century burlesque, even a dash of Roaring Twenties.
The performances are just as impressive. Amy E. Gray lends her immense vocal talents to “The Blue Aspic,” a darkly comic tale of an opera singer done in by unrequited love. Jason Evans plays a variety of demented goofballs, including an author plagued by writer’s block in the showcase’s most psychologically dense piece, “The Unstrung Harp.”
No less shabby is Michael C. McGreevy, who reveals admirable range. Katrina Stevenson’s foxy vixenness is in full force, and Spencer Meyers suggests the lovechild of Jack Black and Ricky Gervais.
Each actor plays a menagerie of personalities and not one is a dud. But the scene-stealer, hands down, is Summer Bohnenkamp, who’s outfitted like a Satanic rag doll. She harrumphs, collapses and bellows like a spoiled and deranged womanchild. In “The Gilded Bat,” a story about the demands of a famous ballerina, her Maude Splaytoe is mute in hilariously Harpo Marx-style fashion throughout the segment — until she finally gets fed up and breaks her silence with a furious lisp. It’s a gag, like several others throughout the show, that hints at a mid-century Hollywood sensibility — e.g., the Marx Brothers, Looney Tunes, Sid Caesar and Lucille Ball. Jobsite heaps on more yuks with the slapstick physicality of Three Stooges and Buster Keaton.
When Bohnenkamp isn’t chewing the scenery, we’re left with another standout: the puppet who plays Little Henry in “The Pious Infant,” an adorable sickly little thing designed by Amanda Bearss.
Overall, Gorey Stories is a great entertainment, and Jobsite does everything and more with the script. Its one drawback, ironically, lies in the detached aura that permeates Gorey’s writing. While clever and enviably ingenious, Gorey’s ashen narratives don’t build up to an unforgettable, catharsis-inducing theater experience. Perhaps they will if you’re already a fan of the stories; for others, not so much.
Still, Gorey Stories should be on your to-watch list. Its sardonic wordplay, pratfalls and merry mayhem will help ease you into the next horrifying holiday season with bellyfuls of laughter.