The play's the thing

Our Endeavors Theater solves Deep Ellum Center for the Arts' identity crisis

Gorey Stories, the autumn production of Scott Osborne and Patti Kirkpatrick's Our Endeavors Theater Company, is an exciting theatrical event for one reason, shared by two entities: Sitting in the audience, you are watching a company (Our Endeavors) and an institution (Deep Ellum Center for the Arts) tumble out of the nest and take flight. The Center itself has had a tumultuous process of identity formation that is still in progress. Funder Don Blanton and executive director Chris Kahanek have been buffeted as much by the Center's programming concerns ("Should we be primarily a visual-arts space or a theater space, offer mostly national or local work?") as by mainstream Dallas' appalling lack of commitment to its hometown artists. Dallas painter Frank Campagna, one of the folks who kept the Deep Ellum Center revving until Kahanek got behind the wheel (he's still a board member), told me back then that live shows would take a back seat to pictures, sculpture, and multimedia. This was an understandable prejudice, as Campagna is a visual artist, but with Our Endeavors' previous The Ultra-Happy, Super-Sad, Mega-Variety Revue and now the exquisite Gorey Stories, I hope Kahanek and Blanton and the DECA board see that art should be the cart and theater the horse. After all, attendance at an art exhibition is often sparse after the opening reception, but even a small audience coming three or four nights a week to a performance guarantees some consistent traffic. And theatergoers catching the exhibit during intermission and before and after the production is far likelier than art-hounds staying for the show.

And with Gorey Stories, Our Endeavors has gracefully resolved the local vs. national dilemma by presenting smashing Dallas performers invoking the prose, poetry, and twisted graphics of international cult legend Edward Gorey. The company and DECA have also calmed the art vs. theater conundrum with the parallel picture exhibit Goreality, posters and prints and lithographs from the career of 74-year-old Gorey.

This kind of synchronicity for an emerging arts space is rare, of course, but it points up how alert programming minds can turn an opportunity into An Event. Gorey Stories and Goreality serve warning about what both Our Endeavors and DECA are capable of, and if you don't get your lazy ass out of that multiplex seat and into these shows, then please quit bitching about how Dallas is a cultural wasteland. I've come to realize during my stint as a critic that Dallas doesn't lack culture, but too few of its powerbrokers and citizenry possess the desire to identify, appreciate, and support it, so the stuff withers away from neglect. That beckoning you see by hometown talent is not waving but drowning, to quote poet Stevie Smith; save them by paying attention.

Brandy McClendon and Mark Farr are just two performers in a large cast that makes Our Endeavors' extravagant production of Edward Gorey's imagination a must-see.
Chris LaVigne
Brandy McClendon and Mark Farr are just two performers in a large cast that makes Our Endeavors' extravagant production of Edward Gorey's imagination a must-see.

The deliciously tacky visual splendor that marks Gorey Stories must be credited to two sources -- Our Endeavors artistic director Scott Osborne used his persuasive powers to fertilize Dallas designer and Too Blue Scenic owner George Miller's imagination. Miller spends his days outfitting some of Dallas' swankiest parties and charity events, but was itching to return to theatrical sets after a long absence. Under Osborne's coaxing, Miller donated much of his time and material to convert half of DECA into a drawing room of pale, satiny print curtains and swerving staircases and gigantic, tome-laden bookshelves and gorgeous electronic candle arrangements atop a procession of huge stone urn sculptures. Surrounded by all this, you find your appetite whetted to a fine, intense pitch as you flip through the program waiting for the series of 18 short vignettes, in which adapter Stephen Currens and composer David Aldrich turn Edward Gorey's profane comic obsession with children (especially) and adults meeting absurd and gruesome deaths into an elegantly ambiguous musical romp.

When a large cast works together with as much sly, efficient charm as this one does, it's almost counterproductive to single people out. Suffice it to say, everybody gets a chance to sing, preen, kill, and die in the sooty Edwardian spotlight, decked out in costumes both raggedy and rich by Audrey Rayburn, and nobody obnoxiously intrudes into anyone's personal glory space. For me, the neatest symbol of the unity of talent and sensibilities, both onstage and off, is contained in the least showy piece, "The Sinking Spell." Arrayed along the sweeping staircase and down toward the front of the stage, the sad story of a falling, tumbling creature is played out in darkness, with each actor lighting the candle of the one in front of him or her, speaking their part in the saga of this devolution and then blowing out the flames almost as soon as they've appeared. The actors have chiseled their gaudy enthusiasm down to a reverent hush invested in these tiny specks of onstage light. It's a beautiful prayer of respect for an insignificant life.

One note to theatrical neophytes who might want to check out Gorey Stories(I sensed there were quite a few at the Sunday matinee performance.) This is the kind of show whose word of mouth is going to reach beyond the usual theatergoing circles, and it's certainly an excellent introduction to the whirling pleasures of the stage. But the matinee ticketbuyers, although they seemed to be enjoying it (the hum of conversation at intermission was most approving), were almost painfully cautious about expressing enthusiasm. The applause was sincere but terribly reserved for this shimmeringly rude production. Don't be shy at letting the efflorescent actors know what turns you on. If the theater critic who gets paid to see shows for free can hoot and holler his approval at curtain, surely the individuals who paid for admission can let the performers know whether they got their money's worth. Gorey Stories is a triumph for Our Endeavors, Deep Ellum Center for the Arts, and the show's cast and designers, and who likes polite celebrations?

 
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