Tastings in the Kitchen: Recent Works at ZJU

In LA’s small-theatre scene, the experimenting is done in public.

A large theatre company (or a college) can percolate ideas and mature talents privately, in studios and workshops (or student shows), while also mounting a season of works for the public.
Most small theatres have no second stage.

So they put their untried notions and newest artists up on the “main stage” in short-play festivals, in 24-hour slam-jams, or simply among the regular offerings. Like the chef and crew at a small restaurant trying out new recipes by putting them up on the chalkboard and letting patrons have a taste.

Recently, the crew at Zombie Joe’s Underground — one of our busiest small theatres, at about 40 shows a year — has put a few new recipes out there on the chalkboard.

Brenda Nascimiento, Bub Konishi, Doug Haverty.

Marissa Bay Riggs, Jason Kientz, Doug Haverty (photo: Shultz/Harris).

THE BEREAVED

An absurdist farce in a funeral home. Great idea!

The team of David Wyn Harris (a frequent ZJU actor) and Andy Shultz (a new face) steps into the kitchen and tackles the toughest theatre recipes, a soufflé.  They concoct a light, fast-moving hour with swift entrances and exits and lots of laugh lines.

The story’s cute, often clever and surprising. The only overdone parts are the deceased’s moralizing lecture (which gets several minutes in the oven instead of a few seconds), and the lighting (which seemed to shift and flicker mid-scene for little reason). The rest moves along nicely.

The actors — all ZJU first-timers  — mostly succeed in creating over-the-top characters with mad motivations and extreme physicalities (though some accents are a bit lumpy.) Doug Haverty deftly delivers an oily funeral director and a bravura pre-show, Derrick Brooks channels James Brown for an electric Rev. Wells, Brenda Nascimento stomps and primps as a Valley princess, and Michael Dougherty’s tic-ridden lawyer makes us squirm.

If you want to taste this souffle, tonight is the last seating. (But never fear:  Word has it the Harris-Shultz team is already at work on another dish, a radio play).
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The Bereaved, by Andy Shultz, directed by Shultz and David Wyn Harris.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4859 N. Lankershim Blvd.

June 27 at 8:30 pm.

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

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Colin Mitchell, Jonica Patella, Dale Sandlin.

Colin Mitchell, Jonica Patella, Dale Sandlin.

MADNESS! MURDER! MAYHEM!

Colin Mitchell’s been in the ZJU kitchen before (his Breaking and Entering was a hit two years ago, and he trod the boards in January as a mad doctor).  And director Jana Wimer is an old hand (longtime co-director of Urban Death, she took it to South Africa in 2013).

Together, they’ve cooked up something new — three short plays in the Grand Guignol style.  This century-old French horror tradition puts gruesomeness on stage, aiming to summon strong feelings — from the frisson we feel as a tale turns awful to the tension that makes us eager for the blade to strike, and makes us scream when it does.

It’s harder to do than it looks.  And while Mitchell’s tales have the right ingredients, they don’t always come together.

At the Break of Day throws two men into a Paris prison cell.  Under the shadow of the guillotine, which one will meet in the morning, they reveal their stories — and discover a surprise.  Ken MacFarlane creates a relentless lifer, LaCazze, who baits and badgers the young murderer Henri (Roland DeLeon).  But the monologs are too long, and the reveal isn’t shocking enough to throw off their weight.

In Natasha, a young psychiatrist (Mitchell) pleads with an old judge (Dale Sandlin) to let him hypnotize the key witness in a trial the doctor feels has gone terribly wrong. When the judge consents, the witness (Jonica Patella) slowly discloses what the lawyers could not guess.  Both men give their characters unexpected range, and Patella — as always — fills the stage with artistry.  This is the most successful of the three pieces, as the acting quality moots any other questions.

The finale, Orgy in the Lighthouse, is the least successful.  Mitchell doesn’t give his characters clear, strong motives; the actors try, but can’t manufacture them.  As a result, when the bloody climax comes, it feels bloody unnecessary.  Kudos to Vincent Cusimano, Alex Walters, Shayne Eastin and Jessica Madeleine for valiant effort.

It’s no easy trick to enter a highly specific style and make it work for you and your audience.  Madness! Murder! Mayhem! may stumble, but it does make the case for continuing to work with Grand Guignol.
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Madness! Murder! Mayhem! by Colin Mitchell, directed by Jana Wimer.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

July 31 at 8:30 pm.

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

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Anthony Vega, Dylan Ryu-Suh, Kevin Van Cott, Aaron Raj, James J. Cox, Nj Ambonisye, Laura L. Sammons, Brett Gustafson, Lee Quarrie, Vanessa Knight.

Anthony Vega, Dylan Ryu-Suh, Kevin Van Cott, Aaron Raj, James J. Cox, Nj Ambonisye, Laura L. Sammons, Brett Gustafson, Lee Quarrie, Vanessa Knight.

CAMPFIRE

Lately, the ZJU kitchen crew has been tinkering with storytelling, the ancient art that gave rise to theatre.  In March, veteran writer and director Jim Eshom hosted a series in which troupe members took the stage, one at a time, to tell autobiographical tales [see my review, A Little Chamber Music, below].

Now, Zombie Joe nudges that idea a step, seating the actors — and any audience members brave enough to accept the invitation — around a fire.  In Campfire, the tales (written by the cast members, then directed by Zombie Joe) betray  eerie turns, and develop macabre echoes and resonances with one another.

Oh yes, and the camp counselor is a leering, lip-smacking Satan (Brett Gustafson), who’s in a good mood.  He does no harm —  just enjoys letting his minions (or captives?) recount their adventures, while Kevin Van Cott provides discreet musical punctuation.

In a bouillabaisse, or even a humble stew, the different ingredients subtly flavor one another.  In Campfire, Zombie Joe — like a skilled chef — lets this effect emerge by setting separate tales together in a shared context and mood. As in a well-tended kettle, the flavors magically  merge and blend while remaining distinct.

Campfire invites us to think — and talk — about the uncanny signs and coincidences that mark our separate paths, the nature of fear and guilt, and even the place of death in our lives.  It also prompts us to peer into the roots of theatre. Well worth the price of admission.
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Campfire, written and directed by Zombie Joe.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Aug. 1 and Aug. 8, at 8:30 pm.

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