For the last two decades, one LA theatre has consistently focused on combining horror and humor, terror and titillation in a modern grand guignol. (There was another, briefly, til the Visceral closed last year.)
The standby is Zombie Joe’s Underground, where the signature creation, Urban Death, delights and distresses packed houses year after year. Recently, the hourlong flash-by of wordless scenes and cameos gave birth to a small but equally popular Halloween version, Urban Death: Tour of Terror.
At the root of it all is Zombie Joe’s peculiar gift for imagining — and staging — very physical, visual moments that reach deep inside us. Of course, like any artist, he’s never done; it’s always time to move on.
A dozen years ago, he challenged himself to stage the poems and tales of Edgar Allan Poe. This yielded a string of brilliant, inventive successes that remain unequalled. At the end of that journey, in Masque of the Red Death, he began exploring a more immersive, expressionistic approach — which eventually produced Nightmares, Manicomio and the striking noir opera Ghosts of the Underground.
Now, Zombie’s reaching for something else. Something that lies beyond Urban Death, but on the same path. In fact, the newest late-night offering, Blood Alley, is somewhat playfully billed as “the evil stepchild” of its famed ancestor.
The family resemblance is clear. Blood Alley hits us with a rapid-fire sequence of perhaps 50 vignettes, fired out of the total darkness the little black box achieves. A few are violent, many are shocking, some provoke laughter, most stir distress.
All the scenes are carried off with incredible intensity, by actors for whom risk is second nature. A shrouded woman, quaking with terror, tries to ask for help but rushes away, mute, hopeless; a circle of dancers subtly shift from erotic rope-dancing to suicide; a sprawling, long-limbed form twists and contorts silently down the narrow stage, almost touching us as it passes. A couple slump together, sharing a cigarette as if it’s a gruesome murder plot.
It’s not only the actors who risk. There are two rape scenes, one crassly realistic, one done as if by telekinesis — either may trigger trauma memories. Blood Alley pushes the abruptness of shock, the stab of discomfort, deeper into us than any prior ZJU offering.
This offspring of Urban Death seems to have thrown away human comfort like an ill-fitting hand-me-down. There is humor, and at least one lyric moment. Yet, where Urban Death and Tour of Terror achieve what I’ve called “the poetry of horror,” playing skillfully upon our expectations and reactions, this show seems to say, with no apology, “These things are. Deal with it.”
Not that there’s no skill involved. Charlotte Bjornbak, Ian Heath and Elif Savas achieve levels of effort that are fearsome to watch, and Allison Fogarty has found the true horror in stillness. Not one of the actors in this consistently impressive ensemble — Cassie Carpenter, Alex G-Smith, Liliane Laborde-Edozien, Daniel Palma, Kelly Powers, Danielle Reverman, Adam Shows, Morgan Allyce Smith, musician Kevin Van Cott — settles for what they knew they could do.
Like Zombie Joe, they are pushing the limits, seeking. I don’t know whether Blood Alley has found new ground to stand on, or a way station on the road to something farther off. But it’s a disturbing, fascinating piece of theatre — part of an ongoing artistic process that’s too important not to watch.
Blood Alley, written and directed by Zombie Joe.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.
Fridays and Saturdays at 11:00,
through April 9.
Tickets: <www.zombiejoes.tix.com> or (818) 202-4120.