ZJU’s “50-Hour” Whips Up Five Smart, Dark Comedies

Many LA theatre companies now stage a weekend of “instant plays” — short pieces conceived, written and rehearsed in a day or two.  Zombie Joe’s Underground is currently presenting its “14th Annual 50-Hour Drive-By Theatre Festival.”

Five playwrights, four directors, and 18 actors jumped into the mix. On Thursday night, each writer received a handful of random props. Friday night, the performers got their scripts; and Saturday (with backstage support), the show opened.

As the uncomfortably urban name suggests, ZJU’s instant plays keep an eye on the dark side, peering into mayhem and mystery.  And as Friday’s night’s SRO crowd expected, they also share the NoHo horror/comedy house’s distinct style — fierce, focused and physical.


For a light first course, Katherine Bowman’s Meet the Susans serves a birthday cake for one of three women (Elif Savas Felsen, Tanushree Verma and Michelle Moraveg) who share … more than usual.  A stiff military messenger (a delightful comic turn by Caitlin Carleton) casts a pall on the party, then hesitantly joins in … more than usual.

Things darken with Jim Eshom’s Patient 99, a sardonic peek at a messianic faith in the post-apoc future.  Hannah Kaplan, known for her manic energy, anchors this one with mordant stillness;  Ian Heath and Jordyn DeMarco fuse in a comic duet like two Marx siblings; and Cheryl Doyle sprinkles sweet ditz on top.

Half of Infinity, by Steven W. Alloway, turns the Frankentrope to comic use, with a nerdy doctor and his faithful assistant cobbling together his dream woman.  Clever inversion: the creature (Elena Ray) moves with fluid energy, while the humans are almost immobile (but Colin Mitchell and Gloria Galvan are eloquent even in silence).

Adam Neubauer’s The Original plunges deep into the dark, as three desperate survivors (Tucker Matthews, Abel Horwitz and Jennifer Chun) track a mad killer through his clones (loony avatars of Billy Minogue).  Flashlights, sweating fear, death struggles — and constant laughter.

Finally, Vanessa Cate’s Forever returns us to daylight.  But not in comfort.  A nervous woman (Jonica Patella, who gives an actor’s lesson in saying “Oh”) awaits one guest, but is surprised by another.  Amid high anxiety, the tottering triangle (its male parts sweetly held by Julian Vulcan and Scott Sytten) finds an unexpected balance.

An “instant play” festival is truly the art of the soufflé — whipped up quickly, baked swiftly, and served at once.  The crew in Zombie Joe’s kitchen prepares their dishes with skill and ferocity, as if there’d never be another meal — and with precise discipline.  The result: five comic plays that are light but full of dark flavors, with a hint of … is that blood?
“The 50-Hour Drive-By Theatre Festival”:
Meet the Susans, by Katherine Bowman, directed by Jana Wimer;
Patient 99, written and directed by Jim Eshom;
Half of Infinity, by Steven W. Alloway, directed by Sebastian Muñoz;
The Original, by Adam Neubauer, directed by Roger K. Weiss;
Forever, by Vanessa Cate, directed by Denise Devin.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Monday, Jan. 26th at 8:30 pm.

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


Fishing in the Depths: “Viral” at the Bootleg

When I was a kid, I loved surf fishing.  My Dad and brother and I would stand on the beach and toss a line with up to a half-dozen hooks of different sizes, each with a different bait to tempt various kinds of fish.  Or crabs.  We’d take whatever came.

Viral, at the Bootleg Theater, reminds me a little of surf fishing.  Within the first few minutes, we’ve hooked several lively topics — the internet, assisted suicide, porn and dysfunctional relationships among them.  The script moves so well, and the characters are acted so well, that we wait eagerly to see what’s coming next.

Alicia Adams, Daniel Dorr (photo: Justin Zsebe)

Alicia Adams, Daniel Dorr (photo: Justin Zsebe)

When all’s done, Viral turns out not to be about the internet (despite its title), nor any of these other issues, so much as about the conflict between what’s real and what we imagine.  It’s thus also about, yes, the big fish, the one lurking in the depths, hiding in the seaweed of metaphors: Art.

Mac Rogers’ writing and Darin Anthony’s directing lead us through several clever turns along the way, so I’ll do no spoiling.  I’ll just say  Viral makes its point forcefully.  And honestly.  The artists win the  right to say it, but they don’t; they embody it instead.

Mariel Higuera’s Geena hooks us first, flickering like a small fish between hope and fear as she tries to please her lover Colin.  She also gains moments of giddy control when she turns up the sexual heat.  As Colin, the plot’s driving force, Daniel Dorr lets us feel the fear wriggling behind his obsessive perfectionism; his neurosis drifts toward abusive, but he’s never cruel or cold.

Oscar Camacho makes Jarvis, the techie, gofer and third wheel, more than a hormone-driven caricature; at times, he’s the sanest person in the room, the one whose reactions we trust.  And in  Snow, the film distributor who got away, Mark Kinsey Stephenson creates a shady commedia type who morphs into a serious man of business, dropping the climactic choice squarely in everyone’s lap.

But the show belongs to Meredith, the lost soul seeking closure who wanders into this den of misfits.  From the first, Alicia Adams nicely blends strength and confusion, sharing her roller-coaster evolution with us.  She delivers her “big speech” to Geena as revelations she suddenly sees, and confessions the crisis rips out of her; the self-knowledge she finds at the end is fully earned.

The fine performances are grounded by a well-designed, clearly lit platform set (the work of Aaron Francis), accessorized by shrewd use of visible offstage space.  Sherry Linnell’s costumes stay simple and mark the characters clearly.  And the Bootleg space, cavernous though it is, delivers sound remarkably well.

In the first of what they hope will be several co-productions, Bootleg Theater and Moving Arts have skillfully landed a “fine kettle of fish.”  Their Viral is an intelligent, fast-moving comedy that reaches well into the depths.
Viral, by Mac Rogers, directed by Darin Anthony.
Presented by Moving Arts and Bootleg Theater, at the Bootleg, 2220 Beverly Blvd. (west of Alvarado).

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:17 pm, through Jan. 31.

Tickets: <www.bootlegtheater.org> or <www.movingarts.org>


Broke-heart Comic Jewel: “The Life of the Night”

You may know  Djuna Barnes — she’s finally coming into her own as a poetic chronicler of gay life in 1920s Paris.  (A decade earlier, she’d been a muckraking feminist reporter for New York’s newspapers.)

Her best-known novel, Nightwood, is about half-requited love and heartbreak.  She tells it in dense, image-filled  language, packed with the reflections of a fierce intelligence.  T.S. Eliot, who championed its publication, said, “Only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.”

Never intimidated by a challenge, The Others Theater Company has transformed this novel into a play.  They’re premiering the result — The Life of the Night — this month in Silver Lake.

It’s a triumph.

Amanda Newman, Madison Shepard, Jessica DeBruin

Amanda Newman, Madison Shepard, and Jessica DeBruin (photo: Stevie Rae Dominguez).

Kate Motzenbacher and her collaborators have distilled Barnes’  impressionistic mural of Left Bank life into a compact, effective drama.  Moving swiftly, and with clear direction, the four-character tale retains the wit and pathos of the original.

What’s more, the actors (and director) make sharp, strong choices and hold to them.  This shines intention through Barnes’ opaline words, like a light glowing through the dark-stained glass of a Tiffany lampshade.  It makes the purple passages clear and luminous — just what these people would say, must say, in this moment.

The protagonist Nora (Barnes’ self-portrait) is breathed powerfully  to life by Jessica DeBruin.  With unwavering energy and commitment, she flies from shy love-play to hair-rending agony, from dull depression to howling rage.  It’s a part for an operatic soprano, and DeBruin does coloratura with no visible effort.

Nora’s confidant, a transgender doctor named Matthew, has seen and done it all, and loves to talk about it.  Christopher Aguilar embraces this homme (and femme) raisonnable fully.  His flamboyant irony, rooted in suffering and love, never veers toward caricature;  it’s just Matthew intensely being (and at times mocking) himself.

As Nora’s rival, the dilettante club singer Jenny, Amanda Newman  sparkles.  Taking a cue from her 1920s song, “Naughty Springtime Cuckoo,” Newman (a bold casting choice) eschews a Billie Holiday knockoff and instead creates an eager, unwise girl whose birdlike mannerisms comically, sadly imitate a flapper’s seductiveness.

In their midst, fought and wept over, is the masculine Robin, an addict of the night life’s flowing liquor and casual sex.  With almost no lines, Madison Shepard nonetheless lets us feel something — fugitive, nearly lost, but still there — hiding inside this redbreast’s self-centered preening and sociopathic indifference.

All I’ve said still does not do justice to the achievement of The Life
of the Night.  Wonderful motifs of business and movement weave the story together visually and physically, and the adapter’s scalpel is so shrewdly wielded that nothing seems lost or left out, only clarified.

In a particularly nice touch, the pre-show introduces us to Nora and Robin non-verbally — then in the first scene, Nora and Matthew deluge us with Barnes’ language, letting us taste the novel’s impact.   At once, though, we’re swept into the fast-moving narrative, which never flags or becomes unclear.  By the climax, when Nora and Matthew again trade poetic aphorisms, we know who they are and what they’re saying and even why they’re shouting.

Then there’s the comedy.  The novel is autobiographical, and takes the liberty of viewing its characters as Nora (Barnes) sees them.  But onstage, each actor must believe in the character utterly, letting us see every character as they see themselves.  These actors do that.

Yet each also manages — goaded by pain or desire — to push just a bit past what the character would be comfortable seeing in a mirror.  So we also experience them, a bit, as Nora sees them.  At these moments, we slip unnoticed from the pathos of La Boheme to the wit of Being Earnest.  Barnes did it on paper; The Others have pulled it off onstage.

Finally, a note about queerness.  Nightwood is justly celebrated as American literature’s first overtly lesbian novel (and the Doctor as the first transgender character).  And “telling queer stories” is part of The Others’ mission to “tell stories that don’t usually get told.”

And … everyone in The Life of the Night is gender-fluid.  You’d think this might occasion some discussion of queerness, its many forms, and the struggles being queer entails.  But this story’s focus is on four people and their relationships with one another, not with their families or the outside world.

So except for the occasional insight  (such as Nora’s poignant remark about dolls) it’s almost wholly a drama of love, loss and grief.  These four people are just these four people, so fully presented that we believe them and understand why they love each other, and why it hurts so much when love fails.

The Life of the Night engages us with real people caught in the tides of love and need, and the mysteries of the night.  It moves us to suffer with them, and it makes us laugh.  And all in an hour, which ends as suddenly as love does.

Don’t miss it.
The Life of the Night, adapted by The Others Theater Company from Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes; directed by Kate Motzenbacher.
Presented by The Others Theater Company at the Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd.

Jan. 8 (Thu.) 8:00 pm; Jan. 9 (Fri.), 8:00 pm; Jan. 24 (Sat.), 8:00 pm; Jan. 25 (Sun.), 5:00 pm.

Tickets: <www.sonofsemele.secureforce.com>

NOTE: The Life of the Night is one of four works by guest troupes that were incubated in the Son of Semele Ensemble’s “Company Creation Festival 2015.”  The others, also appearing through January, can be found at <www.sonofsemele.org> .