Those who braved the storm for the last local performance of the Trey McIntyre Project found that the Filene Center offered little shelter. Wind swept the driving rain through the center’s open sides and across the seats in waves. Thunder roared and lightning lit the sky like a strobe.
It was an unnerving setting. And it was eerily perfect for the evening’s opener, McIntyre’s “The Vinegar Works: Four Dances of Moral Instruction,” based on the dark art of the late Edward Gorey. Near the end of this piece, when the top-hatted figure of Death glides onstage like an English gent, carrying a big black umbrella, he seemed to be poking fun at the damp audience. McIntyre couldn’t have anticipated the irony. Was that Gorey having the last laugh?
There were more light moments in this grim piece, which takes its title from a collection of Gorey’s writing about odd, doomed creatures. Some of these creatures populated the dance: a fat, nasty, man-size baby who growls; veiled women whose black-lipsticked mouths form silent screams; and one of the unfortunate moppets from “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” whose deaths were told in lilting verse. Alan Cumming read its lines, in a recording: “I is for Ida, who drowned in a lake; J is for James, who took lye by mistake.” And so on, up to poor Zillah, succumbing to gin.
Which wee victim was the one danced with rubbery vigor by Brett Perry in darling gray knickers? (Bruce Bui designed the artful Edwardian-esque costumes.) He fared better than his literary inspiration, for he got to bounce around the stage in McIntyre’s characteristic mix of quirky, athletic moves that send the body in different directions at once. The music, Shostakovich’s mournful and frenzied Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, added depth to this view of eccentrics on the crux of two worlds: living and dying, and also Victorian rigidity giving way to Edwardian looseness.”
No, I kid, I contextually kid! “Or, Whatever,” is the postscript to Edward Gorey’s “The Deranged Cousins,” the title of the third section of McIntyre’s 2014 “The Vinegar Works: Four Dances of Moral Instruction,” a ballet whose funny, non-sequiturial weirdness pays homage to the late Gorey’s hilariously bizarre writings and drawings.
A twitchy, Victorian atmosphere in black, white, and gray is conjured in four vignettes. Though the rest of “Vinegar” is set to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 (performed live by the skilled teenage musicians of Chicago’s Trio Solaris), Brett Perry’s magnificent opening solo is accompanied by a recording of Alan Cumming’s droll recitation of the “Gashlycrumb Tinies,” one of Gorey’s wicked alphabets: “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears. . .”
Perry and Elizabeth Keller — a towering grim-reaper figure — appear throughout “Vinegar,” lightly binding the bits together but also playing a subtle game of cat-and-mouse over, presumably, Perry’s soul.
A series of grotesque characters appears, as if tumbling out a giant storybook (though sometimes they are spit out of Keller’s accordion-like skirt). The Beastly Baby, performed with obnoxious exuberance by John Speed Orr, stumbles, rolls, and leaps like a bloated tick while three others look on first with prim horror, then relief, when Baby is pecked at and finally dispatched by a hungry eagle. Those Deranged Cousins wander vacuously about like restless flappers until one by one they perish. Designed by Dan Luce and Michael Curry, Keller’s skirt and that eagle (a puppet manipulated by two dancers), Bruce Bui’s vivid costumes, plus a zombie-nun and bowler-hatted, fur-coated goons all add to the “Thriller” meets “The Nightmare Before Christmas” delirium.”
The choreography references four Gorey books (with excerpts read by Alan Cumming), though McIntyre alludes to others: Yes, that was the bird from “The Dubious Guest” you saw bouncing across the stage. Perry opens with a fanciful solo, both athletic and formally reserved, while the recorded Cumming recites an alphabet of bloody demises from “The Gashlycrumb Tinies.”
A death figure reminiscent of what you might encounter at a New Orleans jazz funeral (Elizabeth Keller) dominates the stage picture. Later, Travis Walker, Ashley Werhun and Amber Mayberry seem to plan each other’s ends in “The Deranged Cousins”; McIntyre conjures a Totentanz from Shostakovich’s extended pizzicato passages. A good, grisly time is had by all. The world is going to miss TMP.”
“Tim Burton’s Fantasia,” was how my partner described it, which aptly sums it up: the dark humor, quirky characters, modern Victorian-chic and cartoonish design (meant as a compliment) wrapped in eerily splendid music. McIntyre’s moves slip’n’slide from graceful and fluid to awkward and grotesque, as if moving from the world of the living to that of the dead.”
In Gorey’s pen-and-ink world the characters are often in peril, as spelled out in the “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” section, which has Brett Perry kicking up his feet to a recorded narration by actor Alan Cumming (in full fiendish voice) that lists from A-Z how 26 children meet their untimely ends (bears, tacks, peaches, etc.).
McIntyre also showcases Gorey’s signature style by using his lively choreographic sensibility to blend horror and whimsy. In “The Beastly Baby” scene for example, John Speed Orr is a roly-poly egg-shaped incubus who no one wants to have around, including his dismayed parents. A magnificent bird puppet swoops in to peck at him.
“The Deranged Cousins” section gives the mischievous Travis Walker, Ashley Werhun and Rachel Sherak an opportunity to turn playtime into a funeral. “The Disrespectful Summons” is a roundup of all of Gorey’s ghoulish citizenry, dancing under the dark shadow of a towering skeleton-faced puppet — Death itself, with a sly smile.”
Choreographed by: Trey McIntyre
Costumes by: Bruce Bui
Lighting by: Raquel Davis
Puppetry by: Michael Curry and Dan Luce
Music: by Dimitri Shostakovich
Premiere Date: March 21, 2014
Running Time: 35 minutes
Cal Performances – Zellerbach Hall, Harris Theater, Rialto Center for the Arts, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, Des Moines Performing Arts – Civic Center