A Gift for the Dying: “Morrison Christmas”

‘Tis the season to be jolly, right?  With songs of good cheer around the wassail bowl, with decorated trees and glittering lights and gifts by the fireside, we defy fall’s dying and winter’s dark cold —

Or we don’t.

We admit that in our traffic jams and shopping malls, even at our quiet hearthsides, we’re all hurrying headlong toward one place,  though we don’t want to go there.  Death.

Does that make us fearful?  Of course.  Well, the artists at Zombie Joe’s Underground (justly famed for such horribilia as Urban Death) have a gift for us, to meet our fear and quiet it.

morrison xmas

In Morrison Christmas, ten actors (and director Josh T. Ryan) take  some of the wisdom humans have gathered about death over the last few millennia, and they put it into theatrical form.

It’s not an easy hour.

We look death steadily in the face — not the skeletal bogey who often capers about this black box, but our own death, personal and intimate.  The one waiting for us somewhere.  The moment we must meet wearing nothing but a frail body.

There’s comfort here, but it comes from unfamiliar sources.  We hear words from a Tibetan Buddhist classic, Bardo Thodol (known in English as The Book of the Dead), and from Hopi song cycles.  Most of the Tibetan is translated; but some isn’t, and none of the Hopi is.

Our most familiar-sounding guide is the late poet and songwriter Jim Morrison.  Lead singer of The Doors, the “Lizard King” was one of the most famous — and fearless — artist-explorers of the 1960s.  He delved not only into sex and drugs but also death, studying what other human cultures had learned about it before he met it at 27.

But our rational minds can’t quite unravel  his imagistic lyrics, any more than the words from the high Himalayas or the Tewa Pueblo.  What we’re hearing leaves us unsettled, unsure.

And what we’re seeing makes us squirm.  The human bodies before us move together, at times in sinuous sensuality, at times in stark violence, almost always woven together in a shared mortal body.

Vanessa Cate and ensemble (photo: ZJU)

Vanessa Cate and ensemble (photo: ZJU)

Except when they meet death.

Suddenly, the individual stands (or falls, or lies) lonely and apart.  Others call it by name.  They offer words of guidance, leading the dead one into the unfolding states reported by those who helped amass the Bardo Thodol — the dying moment’s clarity, the divine visions, the shockingly personal angels and demons of our own karma, and finally, rebirth.

Moving us through these moments, the ensemble reassures us.  They even laugh with us, crowing “I thought I was dead!”  Yet what they’re drawing us into, and through, is the most unknown of all human experiences.  And the most fearful.

So we end our hour unsettled, uncertain.  We’ve been stirred, intrigued, assaulted, and comforted.  We’ve been led beyond our thinking minds to encounter what we most fear.  We know it better now, but our discomfort stays.  Because part of what we know is that it’s still out there waiting for us.

Morrison Christmas makes a strange gift.  But it’s one we’re not likely to forget.  Indeed, we’re likely to recall it in our life’s last moments.  You can’t say that about a pair of socks, or a new iPad.

The artists who offer this gift — the actors listed below, director Ryan, sound/light operator Grace Lai, and producer Zombie Joe — display the sustained intensity of focus and utter courage that are hallmarks of the best ZJU productions.  From Alex Walters’ gentle opening to Vanessa Cate’s final ascension, they take us into the unknown by daring to go there.  I am proud to admit that I know these people.

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Morrison Christmas, by the ensemble, directed by Josh T. Ryan.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Fridays and Saturdays at 11:00 pm, through December 20th.

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

The “Psychedelic Blue Light Distraction of Christmas” Ensemble:
Vanessa Cate, Cheryl Doyle, Marc Erickson, Amir Khalighi, Chelsea Rose, Cynthia Salazar, Olivia Spirz, Alison Stolpa, Brenda Nicole Walsh, Alex Walters.