The Poetry of Horror: (2) “Tour of Terror”

‘Tis the season for horror.   It’s powered by a simple spring:  A ghost or zombie or disembodied arm leaps out at you from the dark, and you scream.  Then you laugh with relief.  And then scream again.

But some theatre artists go far beyond this.  They don’t just multiply shocks and surprises.  They explore the inner depths where horror resides in us, and give it poetic form.

Zombie Joe (far right) and his crew

Zombie Joe (far right) and his crew

Urban Death “Tour of Terror” – at ZJU

This may be the smallest, lowest-budget Halloween scare event in all of LA.  Don’t let that fool you.  If you take your flashlight and walk in the door of this tiny NoHo storefront, you’ll never be quite the same again.

No track of moving cars here.  No 10-foot-tall raptors.  Just you and a companion or two, stumbling through a maze of blood-soaked plastic sheeting, with that cheap little … oh my god.  What was that? And (scream!) what is THIS?

When you finish the maze, you’re in a black box where everything goes dark and you’re sure something’s out there.  Somewhere.   You’re right.  One by one, moments flash before you — bloody, disturbing, titillating, cruel, funny, embarrassing … and then it’s over, and you have to do the maze again to get out.  Only it’s a new one, with different surprises waiting for you.

Simple, huh?

You wish.  The setting is simple, the props are things you could find in your kitchen or garage.  But the “story,” the sequence of things you encounter, is not simple at all.

In “Tour of Terror,” what the actors bring you are also things you could find at home.  On the dusty back shelf of your memory closet, or deep in the basement under the spider-webbed dirt.   Your own emotions, and their baffling, confusing contradictions.

One moment, you’re recoiling in fear, like you would at any horror show.  But the next moment, you feel empathy, you start to reach out and help that poor — but aaagh!  It’s so disgusting!  Then something easy, like a leering clown (well, easy for some of us).  Then a naked person whose body stirs yours … but what’s that other person doing to them?  Should I even be watching this?  And why am I laughing?

On the 45-minute tour, you visit an array of your own sensations and feelings, with your thoughts racing to keep up.  Like Pandora’s box pried open, you release the conflicts and guilts, the desires and disgusts, the lusts and the griefs, that lurk inside you.

Inside all of us.  For this is a tour of the human heart and soul.  And the terror isn’t out there, but inside — in the unconscious and half-conscious chambers, beneath the face we see each day in the mirror and present to the world.

Back out on the street, you’ll return your flashlight, laugh and share your laughter with others.  You’re safe.  But not really.  You may not be able to recall what each of the performers did — but try as you might, you won’t forget what they showed you.

Urban Death “Tour of Terror”, created by the ensemble, directed by Zombie Joe and Jana Wimer.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group at ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Bvd., North Hollywood.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 pm, 9:15 pm, 10:00 pm, 10:45 pm, and 11:30 pm.  Through November 1st.

The Ensemble:  Charlotte Bjornbak, Jennifer Novak Chun, Gloria Galvan, David Wyn Harris, Ian Heath, Abel Horwitz, Amanda Kelly,
Jonica Patella, Tina Preston, Victoria Strafuss, Kevin Van Cott,
Roger Weiss.

Tickets: <> or (818) 202-4120.

DisclaimerI have acted, written and directed with Zombie Joe’s for several years, and consider it my theatre home.  But I had no part in creating or promoting Urban Death “Tour of Terror.”


The Poetry of Horror: (1) “Hold Me Tight”

‘Tis the season for horror.   It’s powered by a simple spring:  A ghost or zombie or disembodied arm leaps out at you from the dark, and you scream.  Then you laugh with relief.  And then scream again.

But some theatre artists go far beyond this.  They don’t just multiply shocks and surprises.  They explore the inner depths where horror resides in us, and give it poetic form.

(poster: Andrew Diego)

Hold Me Tight – at Cal State LA

In 1933, a pair of French housemaids violently murdered their employer and her daughter, entering the annals of crime.  The mystery-enshrouded story of the Papin sisters has been examined often —  in the era’s  journalism, in Genet’s play The Maids, in essays by Sartre and Lacan, and in several films.

This week, in a tiny theatre hidden in a Cal State LA music building, a small ensemble is again exploring the Papin sisters’ story.  But this group, working together since January, uses different methods.

There is a stage.  On it are a door and two sets of freestanding stairs.  Off to one side stands a musician (Tintin Nguyen) at a keyboard.  Into the space, gradually, come not one but two pairs of sisters — Jessica Miller and Hayley Hirsch, and Andrew Diego and Andy Her.

It’s not clear where or when in the story we have entered.  But at first, it does seem clear that  Miller and Diego are enacting (mostly  dancing) the role of Christine, the dominant elder sister, while Hirsch and Her perform the younger, submissive Léa.

Soon, however, as scraps of voice-over narration emerge like fragments of memory,  the performers are switching roles — and then partners — even taking turns portraying the ill-fated Mme.  Lancelin and her daughter.  Nothing is stable; everything is fluid.

With lullabyes and children’s songs, sudden bursts of percussion and shards of melody, we are pulled from moment to moment, from a building tension to lovers’ peace, then to the explosion of violence, then to calm, then guilty angst, then back again.  The murder seems to explode into this murky world over and over, as the sisters seek to comfort one another, distressed equally by servitude and freedom.

Without dialog, but with speaking and singing voices, and cries, the scenes weave rhythmically in and out of one another.  The dancing of the story — or, more accurately, of the sisters’ fluctuating psychic states — crawls, spreads, leaps and falls over every inch of the spare set with frightening invention.

Some scenes dramatize factual events — the sisters bathe one of the Lancelin women, the husband-father returns to find the debacle.  Others create powerful fictional moments — an emcee auctions off the sisters at a “Price Is Right” slave sale, a maid endlessly feeds bon-bons to a linen-wrapped mistress who spits them out.

What all this adds up to, when it cycles to its end, is a profoundly unsettling telling of the sisters’ story.

Not bloody eye-gouging and fierce bludgeoning, suddenly  erupting in a quiet bourgeois home.  Not an incestuous love affair that descends into madness.  That’s the easy way, the ride you can get at any spooky house.

Hold Me Tight is an hourlong plunge into the depths where true terror hides — inside our souls.  It sends you without a guide into a maze of half-lit, noise-filled caves, sweeping you to heights of desire and then depths of despair, into longing and loss, into fury and fear.  Into the  turbulent chaos where two daughters of poverty struggle to find patterns, to comfort one another, to lash out, to make sense … and, ultimately, fail.

All the cast are dancers as well as actors, and they sing.  They know their story and its physical setting well, and they know and trust one another.  As a result, their story — as confusing and disturbing as it is — holds the audience rapt.  Noise and light intrude from a nearby hall, but cannot distract us.

Director Naomi Bennett chose to work specifically on building an ensemble, and on devising non-linear and gender-fluid ways to tell a story, for her MFA.  As a thesis  project, Hold Me Tight is a resounding success.   More than that, it is an intriguing, shocking, and stirring piece of theatre that deserves a place in the repertoire — for all seasons.

Hold Me Tight, created by the ensemble, directed by Naomi Bennett.
Presented by Not.Just.Theater. at the Arena Theatre, Cal State LA.

Tuesday (Oct. 21) and Wednesday (Oct. 22) at 7:00 pm.

Tickets: <>
































A Masterpiece Not to Miss: “What of the Night?”

Do you know the name María Irene Fornés?  You should.

She won nine, count ’em nine, Obie Awards for her playwriting and directing.  (Actually, if you do count ’em, there are 14 — since one recognized two plays, and two others recognized three each.)

And 15 years ago, New York’s Signature Theatre devoted an entire season to Fornés.  One reviewer said, “She has redefined American theatre as profoundly as Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller” (Alisa Solomon, in the Village Voice).

Steve Madar, Gina Manziello

Steve Madar, Gina Manziello

The Vagrancy is currently performing one of Fornés’ masterworks, What of the Night?  In fact, they’re staging its West Coast premiere — although it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist 25 years ago.

Ignored a little?  Yes.  And The Vagrancy’s production makes the reasons abundantly clear.

Not because Fornés is obscure, or weak, or dated — but because her storytelling is so painfully clear, so slap-in-the-face honest, you can’t fail to understand and be moved by it.  She also lashes the soulless capitalism strangling our culture, with never a word of preaching but with searing accuracy.  She makes everyone else seem tame.

Fornés is, in a word, too strong for most American theatres.  You’ll never see one of her plays at the Mark Taper.  (Yes, that’s a dare, Michael Ritchie.)

To be fair, many of her plays — including What of the Night? — work best in intimate settings.  At Studio/Stage, director Caitlin Hart has deployed a mere 20 seats into the small space around her actors, who work surrounded by wall panels and projections.  This intimate immersion encourages what Fornés regards as the heart of theatre — not conflict, but people on the stage experiencing life, and people in the audience feeling it.

A Fornés play is made of many short, spare scenes, with actions and dialog starkly pruned.  What of the Night? joins its  dozens of scenes into four short playlets — Nadine, Springtime, Lust and Hunger — that function as four acts.   It opens with a woman singing as she scrubs laundry on a washboard.

In Nadine, the woman struggles to raise her children in the late 1930s.  Lucille is a sickly nursling, Rainbow’s in school, Birdie (a waif Nadine has taken in) helps with housework, and Charlie strips clothes from sleeping drunks to sell to a local grifter named Pete.   Nadine, we discover as her pleadings with Pete fail, trades her body for the family budget.  Charlie and Birdie wed, in a sad imitation of teen romance magazines, then Birdie leaves to seek her fortune.

Springtime takes us into the life Rainbow has found 20 years later — caring for the ailing Greta, her beloved.  When she steals  to pay for Greta’s treatments, the shadowy Ray enters their world.  At first he forces Rainbow to pose for nude photos; then, in hostage syndrome, she comes to view him as “a friend”; finally, he coerces Greta to have sex, destroying the love affair.  Exit Rainbow.

In Lust, Ray — the older son Nadine gave away — enters the amoral corporate world of the 1980s.  An executive swiftly initiates him into pecking-order ethics, then proffers his daughter.  As Ray rises, his loveless union with Helena falls apart; comforted by her maid, Birdie (with whom Ray’s having an affair), she starts gaining a sense of self.  Meanwhile, Ray descends from abusive rages into a terrorized nightmare.

Finally, in Hunger, we reach the present — a street scene, where the homeless Ray waits, with others, outside a shelter.  A demented Charlie is the doorkeeper.  Birdie enters, smartly dressed, with food. Once it’s delivered, though, she can’t leave; “A moment ago you felt you were different,” one of the vagrants says.  An angel enters and pours animal entrails before them, and Ray takes the semi-conscious Birdie into his arms and wails.

It’s hard to convey the intensity with which these brief scenes hit, like body blows.  Or the way the razor-edged dialog, unadorned and matter-of-fact, slips by almost unnoticed.  The cumulative effect is like undergoing a rapid surgery, without anesthetics.

The Vagrancy artists deliver this shattering experience with force and humanity.  Gina Manziello’s beleaguered yet dignified Nadine seizes our empathy, and her singing gives us a tender throughline.  As the hapless Charlie, Marc Pelina embodies adolescent naivete and lets us grieve for his decline.  Alex Marshall-Brown moves Rainbow from childishness to an adult who can be joyful, yet stands firm for love and justice.

In brief roles as Nadine’s friend and as the fallen Ray’s street buddy,  Kathleen Hagerty brings a warm, flat factuality with a sharp wit at its edge.  Joseph Culliton makes Joseph a chilling study in blithe sociopathy; and as Pete, Steve Madar commands the stage with an equal and rougher menace.

Of special note are Elitia Danels, who fills the spaces between Greta’s lines with visible thoughts and ceaseless emotional complexity, and Linn Bjørnland, who grows the “damaged” beauty Helena from an achingly resourceless rich girl into a courageous, slowly emerging person.

What of the Night? is a genuine ensemble piece in which everyone is a protagonist — because, as Fornés rightly sees, we all suffer.

Still, this telling of the story ends up riding on the shoulders of two fine performances.  Thaddeus Shafer’s Ray moves from an ominous shadow to a despicable — if secretly terrified — misogynist, and then to a broken man from whom we can no longer withhold our pity.
Lisa Jai takes Birdie from a chirpy wisp, surely unable to survive, through a series of changes that make us feel for and respect her, and then feel devastated by her final collapse.

Traci LaDue’s evocative period costumes, Madison Huckaby’s exact props, Matt Richter’s lighting, and Matthew Hill’s projections work well together to create the rapid succession of moods and periods.  But the powers that shape this world are Martín Carrillo’s sensitive colloquial sound design, Hill’s striking and original design of the space, and Hart’s deft shaping of the action within it (her gently choreographed scene shifts in Spring are a lesson to all directors).

In a tiny space, The Vagrancy is making a powerful major work by a modern master come fully to life.  It is a moving, difficult show to sit through.  But if you care at all about America and its theatre, you must see it.

What of the Night?, by María Irene Fornés, directed by Caitlin Hart.
Presented by The Vagrancy, at Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 7:00 pm,
through November 2nd.

Tickets:  <>



Solo for Unhinged Voices: “The Call of Chthulu”

I am not mad — though many think me so — yet I have never been a fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s writings.

Oh, I admire his bid to carry forward the art of Edgar Allan Poe, in both matter and narrative style.  But I fear Lovecraft may have marched into an impossible domain — describing extraterrestrial terrors so alien as to be beyond the very words he must use.

What’s a problem on the page, though, can work just fine onstage.
A year ago, the Visceral Company wove a half-dozen of his tales into their widely praised Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite.  With delightful sets, inventive puppets, fine acting and award-winning tech design and directing, they transformed the writer’s frantic words into a shared experience of uncertainty and fear.

Frank Blocker

Frank Blocker

This October, they’ve rolled out the heavy guns — Frank Blocker is performing alone.  The Call of Chthulu, which many regard as the definitive Lovecraft tale, becomes a two-act drama that sets sail in sanity and ends in … (See for yourself:  returning the plays’ final horrors to mere words would be a grave disservice.  Very grave.)

Blocker isn’t really alone, of course.  There’s a truly splendid set by John Burton, filling the small space with shadows and uncertainty  while seeming utterly familiar.  There are puppets (created by Burton, and managed by Rosie Santilena, Mariele Michel, and Milena Matos), from cloth dolls to looming shadows.  There is the flawless directing of Dan Spurgeon, who also created the engrossing sound design.   And there’s Joshua Silva’s nimble lighting.  All the delights Visceral audiences have come to expect.

But it’s Blocker out there alone for an hour and a quarter, setting us back in our seats with an opening shock (not in the written tale), then drawing us slowly, steadily in.  As he unwinds his web, he lets nine disparate characters emerge, each one caught in the net of mystery and madness, each more overwhelmed by it.

From the polished academic to a neurasthenic artist, a Louisiana bayou cop to a Swedish sailor (and his wife), Blocker morphs as easily as a hummingbird changes direction.  His remarkable vocal range is matched by the many levels of intensity he creates, so that we unwittingly hang our disbelief on the wall and follow him into the otherworld.

The Call of Chthulu is a tale made of words — but woven into a lived experience by the flesh-and-blood actor before us (and his unseen collaborators).   Like Nightmare Suite, it’s an exquisite example of the adapter’s art, subtly transforming prose into drama.

And it makes Lovecraft downright fun, even for me.

The Call of Chthulu, by H.P. Lovecraft, adapted by Frank Blocker, directed by Dan Spurgeon.
Presented by the Visceral Company at the Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm. through
December 7th.

Tickets:  <>

Invertigo’s New World — “After It Happened”

I knew this would be a stunning piece of dance theatre.
I’d seen Invertigo before.

Their Feste’s Dream, created as a prelude to Twelfth Night, was a highly athletic — and gracefully aesthetic — creature of whimsy.
In it, choreographer Laura Karlin and five of her dancers captured the comedy’s heart (the way Mendelssohn did with his overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream).

I also guessed this could be an important piece of dance theatre.

For one thing, it’s one of the first full-length dance narratives to be given a full theatrical run in LA in this century.  For another, its topic is perhaps the most timely one we humans face:  How do we recover from natural disasters?

After It Happened is stunning.  It is important.  And it is more.

(above) Cody Ranger Wilbourn, Irene Kleinbauer, Sadie Jane, Chris Smith (below) Louie Cornejo, Sofia Klass, Jessica Dunn, Ryan Ruiz

(above) Cody Ranger Wilbourn, Irene Kleinbauer, Sadie Jane, Chris Smith; (below) Louie Cornejo, Sofia Klass, Jessica Dunn, Ryan Ruiz.  (Photo: Joe Lambie).

Dance can tell a story without named characters, without dialog.
The Invertigo ensemble — all nine dancers and both musicians — move and act as a whole.  They embody a human community, as it’s overwhelmed by a devastating “act of God,” and as the shocked survivors struggle to respond.

At the same time, we experience the performers as individuals — though we don’t know their names and seldom hear them speak.  We come to recognize each one, learning to read this body, that face, sharing their private emotions as well as the communal experience.

There are solo pieces — a man who’s lost his memory, a girl who’s  recovering hers — you will not soon forget.  There are pas de deux — some lyrical, some brutal —  that will tear your heart out.   And there are moments so small you almost miss them, because Karlin lets so much of the community’s life happen at once, the way it really does (as in Breughel’s paintings).

There is comedy, always part of Invertigo’s world, from a clueless backpacker’s misadventure to the weak jokes of a man trying to cheer his shattered family.  And tragedy — loss and suffering, with no hope of explanation — abounds, the way it really does.

There’s no preaching here.  The Invertigo artists let things happen.   But of course, disaster’s aftermath may bring an invasive TV news crew, or a politician hoping to wrest power from the wreckage.  Just as it can include a funeral or a soccer game, a tender reunion or a rape attempt.

After It Happened is an artistic triumph.  It takes us into a realm we have hardly acknowledged, much less explored.  And it does so with shocking, moving artistry.  Indeed, Invertigo’s dance narrative enters this world with a subtle complexity that character-based spoken drama would be hard-pressed to equal.

Jessica Dunn, Cody Ranger Wilbourn, Chris Smith, Ryan, Ruiz, Sofia Klass, Louie Cornejo. (photo: Joe Lambie)

Jessica Dunn, Cody Ranger Wilbourn, Chris Smith, Ryan Ruiz, Sofia Klass, Louie Cornejo.  (Photo: Joe Lambie)

It’s hard to single out achievements in an ensemble piece developed so collaboratively.  (The musicians — who play live — and the dancers created score and choreography together, improvising and adjusting to each other at every rehearsal.)  But here goes.

The spare set by John Burton suggests a shattered village with utter simplicity — broken doors, windows and grates along the walls and a disconnected bathtub marooned onstage.  R. Christopher Stokes’ lighting fulfils the story’s sometimes fierce demands, moving us about rapidly and accurately, shifting moods smoothly — and (as public services do) abandoning us at critical moments.

The performers are clothed (by Kate Bishop and Rosalida Medina) in just what you’d find after a cataclysm — including a wonder of a dress improvised from trash bags.   And the whole is coordinated ably by technical director (and associate producer) Dan McNamara.

Musicians Toby John Hugh Karlin (keyboards, guitar) and Diana Barber Wallace (percussion) — aided by dancer Hyosun Choi (cello), and Jon Lall  — provide a steadily flowing, shifting ground under the dancers.  Karlin also leaps into the soccer game, and Wallace struts in as the sly politician — as well as contributing her rangy, moving blues vocals throughout.

As for the dancers … citing individuals is impossible.  And it’s the wrong thing to do.  Far more than most companies, Invertigo’s artists share an intense commitment to one another and their work, and an unusual level of input in the creative process.  Together, they have forged an approach to storytelling that is distinctive, dramatic, delightful — and deep.

The dancers are (in alphabetical order): Hyosun Choi, Louie Cornejo, Jessica Dunn, Sadie Jane, Sofia Klass, Irene Kleinbauer,  Ryan Ruiz, Chris Smith, and Cody Ranger Wilbourn.

And then there’s Laura Karlin, the visionary founder who nurtures them as an artistic family, not just a group of performers.   It’s also her dream that led to the several years’ work of unfolding After It Happened.

Forty years ago, I worked with a Midwestern ballet company.
It was the dance critic’s job (and everyone else’s) to identify stars, and rate the other dancers and their skills.   The company staged classic works, using choreography charts as old and fixed as the musical scores.

We’re not in Kansas anymore.  But we can expect tornadoes, as the debate on climate change gets drowned out by more and more frequent, more and more severe natural disasters.  And if we make it through, we will owe much to emergency services — but more to artists like Invertigo.

After It Happened is probably the most important dance work you will see this year.  It is also surely one of the most adventurous, surprising and moving.  Do not miss it.

After It Happened, by Laura Karlin and the Invertigo Dance Theatre.
Presented by Invertigo at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 6:00 pm, through October 19th.

Tickets:  <>

(1) I had the chance to watch Invertigo develop After It Happens in several recent rehearsals, and offered coaching help on delivering spoken lines.  I am also proud to count Laura Karlin a friend.  But as always, knowing what gifted artists are capable of raises the bar of my expectations.
(2) In August, another LA company portrayed a community enduring a natural disaster, in Ibrahim Chávez’ Rain Maryam.  Interestingly, the hereandnow troupe also found it necessary to move beyond traditional theatre and into the language of dance in order to tell the multidimensional story.  My review of their  production is below, on this site.