Zombie Joe's Underground, North Hollywood, CA
Happy Half-Halloween!! "What's Half-Halloween," you ask? Well, you may have heard of "Half-Christmas." On June 25--exactly six months before Christmas Day--yuletide lovers celebrate the spirit of the opposite season with Half-Christmas! It's mostly silly (unless you're Jim or Dan and hate Christmas with a passion of the zeitgeist), but hey, if Christmas lovers can have a Half-Christmas, why can't Halloween lovers have a Half-Halloween? Unfortunately, there is no April 31st, so the day after April 30, i.e. today, May 1st, will have to suffice.
Thus, today, we commemorate the Gothic with a look at one of the darkest, most twisted, most bizarre, and most riveting and interesting experiences that fans of the macabre can enjoy. Urban Death is the full version of the part-maze/part-theater experience that Zombie Joe's Underground Theater puts on during October (which we reviewed last year). Although the regular version lacks the dark, claustrophic maze through the theater's intimate lobby, the show itself more than makes up for this.
Located within a nondescript storefront along Lankershim Boulevard, just northeast of the 101/170/134 freeway interchange, Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre is a very cozy black box theater that puts on small, independent performances year-round. Although haunted attraction fans may know it best for dark, conceptual performance art like Urban Death, it produces a wide variety of shows, from Shakespeare-inspired to dark comedies (I realize these can sometimes be one and the same, but in this case, they're not). Generally speaking, the performances are intended for more mature audiences, which means at a minimum: no kids. Junior High and High Schoolers might be acceptable, though parents should exercise discretion based upon the show.
When it comes to Urban Death, however, this show is not the for easily squeamish or easily disturbed, and guests should be fully prepared to see frontal nudity. This 45-long play features a non-linear progression without any unifying plot. Instead, it is a running series of vignettes strung together by fades to black and re-illumination for the next scene. The content is often abstract, leaving the audience to decipher exactly what is going on. Judging by the crowd this past Saturday, many were often left aghast and perplexed by the scenes they witnessed, although most of the crowd also whooped and hollered in approval. The visceral reactions to the various scenes were almost as much entertainment as the show itself.
The subject matter is decidedly adult, and intentionally provocative. When guests are first ushered into the tight theater space (maximum capacity, about 50 attendees), they are met by a solitary woman, clad only in a blood-stained chemise, curly hair hanging in a disheveled furl, chuckling in a unhinged capacity as her body twists with emotion. The near-silent laughter slowly morphs into a snarl, replete with pointed anger, before overwhelming sadness and despair take over. The loop returns to laughter, and the cycle repeats, with the eyes focused upon the audience filing into the space.
Once the show begins, vignettes pulse through in uneven fashion. Many are brightly lit, though some hide performers in somber shadows and dim illumination. Some scenes are short and sweet, though many last a minute or two. Select background music accompanies each scene, sometimes to enhance a suspenseful mood, other times to complement ironically. Some scenes feature traditional elements of horror--zombies prowl the stage; a vampire conducts a sinister waltz, clowns gather in robotic fashion, creatures manifest and disappear. Others silently remark upon the terror in everyday real life--war, school violence, religion, addition, and sexual assault, for examples. Urban Terror plays upon the senses--visually of course--but also with sound and suspense to maximize the emotional impact of each segment. Certain scenes are designed to shock and disgust, with sex and depravity are thrust forward. Others build tension or bait and switch expectations.
Unexpectedly, many scenes also feature a certain sense of perverse humor, usually through juxtaposition. A unexpectedly awkward scene might be offset by the casual nature in which the actors perform their roles, as though this very strange circumstances was perfectly normal. Something traditionally taboo might be displayed so explicitly as to highlight the absurdity of its traditional unmentionable status. Other scenes start with a sledgehammer blow and continue to assault propriety until the audience is doubled over in disbelieving gasps and disturbed groans. A dominatrix gets particularly handy, then messy. A woman stands fully nude, displaying a mutilated body. A man in deformity becomes the target of a passionate kink that even gives the show a bit of a 4D flare (to describe it vaguely). Without a doubt, the cast is fearless and fully committed to their scenes, no matter how unsettling they are. Even more impressive is how they perfectly hit their spots on the cramped "stage" boundary between scenes in pretty much total darkness. And it is certainly clear that each actor is intimately--Biblically dare I say--comfortable with each other, given the lengths of some of the actions within this production.
Urban Death, then, is more than a static show wherein the audience watches a story relayed (especially since there is no story, though there are many intricate stories). It is an experience--one that forces the viewer to question the limits of what's acceptable to witness and what requires one to turn away. It is a deeply visceral experience. Though the title may imply horror from thematically scary elements, the true terror lies in the dreamlike qualities of many of the scenes, which abstract the abhorrent in real life. At the same time, there is playful humor and sardonic flash interspersed to offer a sense of relief. Urban Death will most certainly leave the audience abuzz, and while this show is admittedly not for the average theater-goer, those looking for something scintillating, provocative, titillating, and horrifying will no doubt find Urban Death cathartic and stimulating at the same time.
Urban Death has been extended for three additional Saturdays, running May 6, 13, and 20 at 11:00pm each show, and I might even make it back for an encore viewing. It is highly recommended to buy tickets online in advance. Every single April show was sold out, leaving some walk-up guests out of luck. For more information, go to Zombie's Joe's web site, and don't let the Geocities aesthetic sway you from offering your patronage. If you think you can stomach the experience, I highly recommend it.
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.