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Zombie Joe Gives You 'Nightmares' This Weekend and Next
There really is nothing like the experience of a stage blackout in the Zombie Joe's Underground theater space. The "stage" here, first of all, isn't an area removed from the audience by a platform or even any distance. It's a room the performers share with the audience. And once that room—the room you are sitting or standing in—goes dark, there's no way to expect what you're going to see next. After what may be only a brief moment, the world directly in front of you—right next to you, really—will probably look entirely different when the lights come back up. But you won't have heard it coming.
The company's new production, "Nightmares," begins with one of these patented ZJU moments of total darkness and sustains it while what starts out as the sound of a normal human gasp escalates and escalates until it fills the room with what might be terror or might be excitement, something sinister or something exhilarating. An initial flicker of light implies that the audience is no longer alone in the space, without revealing who or what has joined them. It then takes another moment before the evening's first alarming set piece begins to unravel.
The apotheosis of ZJU's Antonin Artaud-inspired aesthetic statement over the years has been its roughly annual Urban Death productions. "Nightmares," directed by the maestro Zombie Joe himself, proceeds in a similar vein, but with a different set of operating rules. The scenes are longer (albeit still almost entirely wordless), and every one showcases the entire 15-member ensemble cast. The themes, though, are largely the same: mob violence, cannibalism, sexual adventurism, experiments in pain, creepy creatures, the spillage of blood...plus one severe itch.
One of our own two favorite moments involved a disturbing clown and his audience. In the other a man suddenly embarrassed by his nakedness finds recourse in an unimaginably outrageous makeshift fig leaf.
The configuration of the performance space for this production brings the spectators even closer to the playing area than in any show we've seen at ZJU before, with many standing around the periphery of the room in addition to those seated on the rafters. The spot where we were standing, right by one of the entryways leading out from the backstage area, almost had the actors crawling between our legs at times. But a certain fearlessness has always seemed to be a requisite hallmark of cast members performing here.
The whole thing is over in what we were shocked to realize was less than 45 minutes once we walked out into the pre-midnight North Hollywood air. As it usually does, Zombie Joe's Underground delivers in "Nightmares" a maximally dense visceral impact, with almost no theatrical flab. Any longer and we would never have been able to fall asleep later and commingle the ZJ team's scary dreams with our own.