Zombie Joe’s Underground is known for pushing envelopes — right into our faces, confronting us with lost, dark and hidden things that unsettle us. Drop into the rabbit hole on Lankershim any Friday until May 23, and you’ll find a new show doing just that.
This supple word, in Latin languages, can mean many things: a mad person, an asylum for mad people, or madness itself. Director Sebastian Muñoz and his crew bring it all, in an hour of non-stop shocks and surprises.
To begin with, the house doesn’t look right — a large oblong box sits where the heart of the front row should be. A row of seats spreads along what’s usually the back of the stage. And we’re not alone.
“Some of these folks don’t seem to be … ah, paying guests,” my companion whispers, as a disheveled woman in a housecoat wanders up, eyes us, then veers off. Behind her stands a strapping young man in shorts and T-shirt, not entirely clean, looking lost.
I begin to feel I know this place. It brings back the years I spent, before returning to theatre, as a therapist in clinics for the mentally ill. And indeed, before the lights dim, it’s clear that’s where we are.
In place of a story, this Manicomio offers — as a visit to a real one does — a gentle shove into several stories, as one by one the residents collar our attention and erupt with what troubles them. Some ramblings are sung, some spoken (in various languages), some mimed or moaned. Some are poignant, some are indigestible word salad, some have moments of humor.
All of these madhouse tales are non-linear and disturbing, evoking our confusion and our empathy. Uncomfortably often, they also elicit the chaos bubbling beneath our own socially correct surfaces.
As Alice says in Wonderland, “I don’t want to go among mad people.” It’s easier to look at involuntary suffering from the outside, and label it “illness.” That’s how we deal with the visitations of fate upon our neighbors — a diagnosis and some pills. Whether they work or not (usually not), at least they keep us at a safe distance.
The ZJU actors don’t cut themselves that kind of slack. They don’t talk about mental illness, or perform a “movie-of-the-week” melodrama to wring a little pity or a donation. Instead, they throw themselves into an unscripted, frightening worlds they’ve allowed to arise from their own fears and compulsions.
Although it’s carefully crafted, Manicomio is disorganized, disturbing and unresolved. It simply ends. And the actors’ exit reminds us that in a real manicomio, only the visitors get to leave.
I confess: I’ve spent half a lifetime dealing with mental illness, and Marat/Sade is one of my favorite plays. I’ve also worked, as actor and director, at ZJU many times over the last 10 years.
But Peter Weiss’ madhouse masterpiece has a political axe to grind, and it’s set two centuries away from our daily world.
Manicomio is not a masterpiece. But it is a theatrically daring, emotionally honest attempt to explore the tortured solitude that descends daily upon too many of us. Not to poke fun or ostracize, not to analyze or explain. Just to remind us — with the humility of art — that this confusing, painful mystery is a part of our lives.
Manicomio, at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, 8:30 pm Fridays through May 23. Produced by Zombie Joe, directed by Sebastian Muñoz.
Cast: Jared Adams, Charlotte Bjornbak, Jahel Corban Caldera, Ramona Creel, Joachim de la Rua, Samm Hill, Tyler Koster, Leif LaDuke, Jackie Lastra, Kevin Van Cott, R. Benjamin Warren, Jessica Weiner, and Ann Wescott.
Tickets: (818)420-2120, or <zombiesjoes.tix.com>