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Dead Letter Writer

Edward Gorey's macabre wit comes to life in a Westside stage show and exhibition.

October 29, 1998|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Edward Gorey hates Halloween. Which is not as strange as it sounds. For Gorey, master of often whimsical yet very particular horror, Halloween is pretty much amateur night.

"People are always asking me to do something for Halloween," Gorey says, "and I don't know, I just usually go to a movie so I don't have to answer the door. Fortunately," he adds, "there are no children in my neighborhood."

He adds this, and it is clear that Gorey likes children. Which is a little stranger than it sounds. He has, after all, with cheerful grisliness, knocked off more kids than anyone this side of the Brothers Grimm. His perhaps best-known work, "The Gashlycrumb Tinies," is an alphabet of infanticide ("A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears"). Body count: 26. And it doesn't stop there. In much of the writer-artist's virtually unquantifiable and certainly unqualifiable oeuvre, children meet untimely ends. "Oh well, children are the easiest targets," he has inevitably responded to any stray probing of his subject matter.

On the other hand, Gorey at least affords youngsters their dignity. They follow their destiny deadpan, in suitable high collars and hats, no tears or pleadings or regret, just a quick shove by fate and, as their creator would say: "Well, there you are."

So there are a lot of undercurrents tugging at the West Coast debut of Gorey's theatrical "entertainment" "English Soup." It marks Halloween (performances run today through Saturday) and will be held in Storyopolis, a children's bookstore and gallery. A lovely airy space on trendy Robertson Boulevard, Storyopolis is so large a psycho-geographic leap from Gorey's black and white, cross-hatched Edwardian literary milieu that it seems absurd.

Which makes it completely appropriate.

Through the end of November, Gorey also has an accompanying exhibition titled "Dramatis Artifacti," the span of which establishes him as something approaching a Gothic Renaissance man. In the half-century of his career, Gorey certainly has not been idle. His own books--with their signature men in fur coats and handlebar mustaches, round-faced beady-eyed children and severe women in buns, all stoically contemplating something quite dreadful, and often dead, in rooms with busy wallpaper--give new meaning to the term "body of work."

There are tales written under anagrammatical pseudonyms--Awdrey-Gore, Ogdred Weary--some commercially published, others by his own Fantod Press. Alphabets are a recurring theme, including one devoted to the Figbash, his own mythical, slightly ominous creature. A list of available works from Gotham Book Mart in New York, Gorey's unofficial archivists, runs four crowded pages with offerings such as "The Utter Zoo," "The Fraught Settee," "The Just Dessert." (Just for the record, a first edition of an early work, such as "The Unstrung Harp" or "The Fatal Lozenge," goes for almost $400.)

But there are more bodies in this library: Gorey has illustrated works for authors as disparate as Samuel Beckett, Muriel Spark, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. He has done posters for the New York Opera and the New York Ballet; his New York Ballet shopping bag was the hot carryall for several years. He designed the Tony-winning costumes for the 1977 Broadway hit "Dracula" as well as the enduring opening sequence for PBS' "Mystery!" More recently, he adorned the cover of the New York Review of Books for its 35th anniversary.

Much of this, as well as a homemade beanbag Figbash or two, is included in the exhibition. The folks at Storyopolis had fantasized for years about a Goreyfest, and finally put it together with the help of Carol Verberg, who has produced many of Gorey's live "entertainments."

Regrettably, nothing could lure the 73-year-old famously reclusive author and director from East Coast to West.

"Oh, I never go anywhere," he says, and he doesn't. Since moving from New York to Cape Cod--"10 years, was it 10 years ago? Oh well, something like that"--he hasn't ventured very far, just to local eateries and theaters. "I might miss something on the tube," he offers as one explanation. "Who would take care of the cats?" is another.

So visiting L.A. was out. "Oh who knows?" he says. "I might love it, and then where would I be?"

But he's sending his troupe, a group of Cape Cod actors, many of whom have worked with Gorey on his "entertainments" and plays staged at various Cape Cod venues for the last 10 years.

"They're very excited," he says. "They think they're going to be discovered or something. And who knows? Maybe they will."

Like much of Gorey's work, "English Soup" seems to defy description. "Bits and pieces," he says. "Things that I've written, oh dear, some music, some puppets."

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