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Theater Review: Joe's Garage @ OpenFist

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The case of Frank Zappa is a strange one indeed. Part rock and roll guitar hero, part pointy-headed atonal composer, part potty-mouthed class clown, he straddled the line between high and low art like no other figure in modern music.

Perhaps because of the severe technical demands on the people who try to play it, performances of his music today are fairly rare. Apart from a handful of groups containing Zappa band alumni (The Grandmothers, Project/Object, and son Dweezil’s Zappa Plays Zappa), there haven’t been many with the stones to tackle it.

But OpenFist Theater Company has got some pretty large balls, and if they weren’t literally placed in front of the audience during their performance of Joe’s Garage last Sunday, that’s about all that was left to the imagination.

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Rock music and theater have not always been good partners. There's an inherent over-the-top corniness to musical theater that seems to grate against rockers' sensibilities. While the Broadway adaptation of The Who's Tommy was a great financial success and gained rave reviews, this Who fan found it rage-inducing. I didn't see the more recent attempts at fusing John Lennon and Bob Dylan songs into dance theater, but a handful of reviews confirmed my instinct to stay away (the Dylan extravaganza, by Twyla Tharp, takes place in a circus, so when a character sings about "the jugglers and the clowns", they can point to some jugglers and clowns). Eric Idle's stage presentation of Rutlemania earlier this year was enjoyable for its fine performances of those hilarious Beatle parodies, but the dramatic element left something to be desired. The only one I've seen that really worked was Neil Young's presentation of his own rock opera Greendale a few years ago, which had a funky, community-theater feel to it, and at least featured Young himself singing his own lyrics and playing his own guitar solos.

But the adaptation team of Pat Towne (who also directs) and Michael Franco of OpenFist seems to have come at this with the right approach. There's a reverence toward the source material, evident from the first moment the house band, led by Ross Wright (alias Elvis Schoenberg, leader of Orchestre Surreal) kicks into a fierce, subtly layered groove to start the proceedings. But other than that, nothing is sacred; one of the main characters makes her entrance from between the legs of a Catholic priest, spitting a mouthful of white goo toward the audience, which sets the tone for the rest of the evening.

Like Zappa's other long-form works, Joe's Garage isn't so much about a linear storyline as a series of vaguely-connected incidents, strung together by narration from The Central Scrutinizer (Michael Dunn), a mechanical authority figure that has taken control of America and enforced uniformity at all levels. Joe (Jason Paige) is a guitar player with a garage band, which breaks up at the end of the first number. But his fate is still sealed, as rock and roll itself becomes an enemy of the state, and the police begin to enforce all the laws which have not yet been passed. One of these unwritten laws applies to the accidental destruction of the "XQJ-37 Nuclear Powered Pan-sexual Roto-Plooker" robot (the production's finest visual moment), and Joe gets put on a chain gang. The authorities grind him down until he has to play his last imaginary guitar solo and take a job at a muffin factory.

That's about it, plot-wise, although there are bits about Joe's nominal girlfriend Mary (Becky Wahlstrom) being unfaithful with the crew of a touring rock band, wet T-shirt contests and the Church of Appliantology thrown in somewhere. It wouldn't really work as a novel. But while bypassing the most basic requirement for a piece of theater - a coherent storyline - Joe's Garage manages to work moment by moment on a visceral level, which is what you need to pull off rock and roll. The lascivious choreography and colorful visuals seem right at home here, especially if you've seen the film versions of 200 Motels or Baby Snakes, neither of which are "plot movies" either. And the company brings an ecstatic level of energy to the stage, whether simulating blowjobs, worshipping vacuum cleaners or brutally lambasting the critics in the audience (which we'll try not to take personally, despite the fact that the scariest-looking cast member was pointing and hollering in our faces for the duration. Do they tell him where the press seats are?) It really does feel like the kind of production Frank himself would have conceived.

This production is a must-see for Zappa-heads, who should be really impressed with the band Wright has organized, particularly the fearless solos of lead guitarist Ken Rosser and Chris Wabich's effortlessly heroic drumming. What about everyone else? Well, if elaborate, uncensored, high-energy production numbers about Catholic school shenanigans, VD, prison rape and fighting totalitarianism sound like your cup of tea, you could certainly do worse. Musically, it's one of Zappa's most accessible works, mostly in the tongue-in-cheek mode of his greatest hits from the seventies. The only bit that seems a little too geared to the faithful comes toward the end, as Frank's original reading of Joe's "final imaginary guitar solo" plays through the darkened hall for what seemed like ten minutes, or about six minutes too long. But it's a small price to pay for the exhilaration preceding it, and anyway, a little self-indulgence only makes the whole thing more authentically Zappa-esque.

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Photo provided by OpenFist Theater Company, used by permission.

Frank Zappa's Joe's Garage plays at OpenFist Theater, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, and Sundays at 7:00 PM, through November 22. Purchase tickets through their website at http://www.openfist.org/ or call (323) 882-6912.