Haunting humor hits high notes

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.

E is for Ernest who choked on a peach.

F is for Fanny sucked dry by a leech.

– “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” by Edward Gorey

While learning the alphabet as children, most of us were probably subjected to simple comparisons, such as “‘A’ is for apple” and “‘B’ is for ball,” as well as silly songs and brightly colored balloon letters. More than likely, none of us learned the alphabet by learning about pale children, known as “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” who died by falling down stairs or being sucked dry by leeches. Despite the catchy rhymes, the dark humor didn’t quite fit in with kindergarten’s agenda. Yet the macabre characters have become part of pop culture, first as an illustrated book and most recently as a local play.

Dying children, lunatic asylums and perverted parlor games are common themes in the illustrated books of Edward Gorey. Both a writer and artist, Gorey found success by combining his strange and sinister stories with his unique illustrations. Although some of his drawings include the use of color, he is most often recognized for his black and white illustrations of bleak landscapes, gloomy interiors and Edwardian imagery. His line drawings are full of shadows and hatching, adding to the ominous atmosphere created by the secret thoughts and hidden desires of the characters.

In response to the Halloween season, which serves as an opportunity to delight in the morbid and morose, Jobsite Theater at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center is currently producing Gorey Stories, a play based on Gorey’s short stories, poems and limericks. Accompanied by live music, nine actors play the numerous characters of Gorey’s selected works. Wearing Edwardian costumes in shades of white, black and gray, the actors look as if they were peeled from the pages of Gorey’s illustrations. The set design was completed with the same shades including the hatching that characterizes Gorey’s images. The stories chosen for the play include characters that represent the full spectrum of Gorey’s creations, from the kinky adults in “The Curious Sofa” to the dead children in “The Gashlycrumb Tinies.”

David Valdez, a USF finance and marketing major, is one of the nine actors in the production. Although he was not familiar with Gorey’s illustrations and stories before the play, Valdez brought Little Henry, a God-fearing child concerned with the

salvation of souls in “The Pious Infant,” to life. Dressed in knickers, checkered tights and Converse sneakers, the actor did an excellent job of portraying the cuteness and sinister innocence of a child.

“Acting like a little kid was probably my favorite part,” said Valdez.

Originally premiering on Halloween night in 1978, Gorey Stories closed the first night it opened.

“The ’70s was a decade of disco and deadheads. I can see how this morbid-a– show would go over like a lead balloon,” said current director David Jenkins.

However, times have changed since then. Due to a changing culture, as well as Gorey’s death in 2000, the artist’s work has made a comeback in recent years. Jenkins, a longtime fan of Gorey, as well as one of the founders of Jobsite Theater, decided to bring the play to Tampa, where it is being met with great success. The majority of shows have fully sold out, and the play has been extended until Nov. 11. By the end of the play, fans will find themselves caught up in the debauchery of Gorey’s stories, gleefully singing along and wishing there were more than 26 letters in the alphabet.

For more information on Gorey Stories, go to jobsitetheater.org/goreystories.html.