Eerie, Fun, Not a Dance: ZJU’s “Witch Ball”

Expect surprises.

That’s pretty much the motto for Zombie Joe’s Underground.  They’re famous for grinding all kinds of guignol — from disturbingly gruesome to wonderfully goofy.  And always something shocking.

In addition, ZJU stages upwards of 35 shows each year, most of ’em original.   So they’re constantly pushing their boundaries, as well as ours, venturing into new realms, new ways to tell stories onstage.

Matthew Peter Murphy, Polina Matveeva (photo: Zombie Joe)

Matthew Peter Murphy, Polina Matveeva (photo: Zombie Joe)

Witch Ball, the newest offering, is a case in point.  Given the title, you might expect a devilish dance fest, perhaps a distaff up-do of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.  The sort of thing you’d see on October 31.

But no.  The ball in question is small and round, made of bluish glass.  And it gets its name from its singular property: It’s a Venuts fly trap of the spirit word, attracting  — and imprisoning — demons.

Our story is a picaresque.  We follow the ball as it travels around the world and through the centuries, going from hand to hand (or paw), gathering malevolent spirits.  And sometimes releasing them.

A picaresque is like a travel tour, exotic adventures strung together by the hero experiencing them.  (Think Don Quixote, or Candide.)  In writing Witch Ball, Zombie Joe swaps the hero for a glass ornament.  Since it can’t talk, the storyteller must weave things into coherence.

Three narrators stitch together Witch Ball‘s brief tales, tossing the story back and forth with speed and skill.  Each creates a distinct character and voice, yet the three achieve a steady unity.

Enacting the tales — and dozens of characters, human and animal and supernatural — are seven players. Their roles are far too many to recall.  But the seven pull it off, morphing into beings and personages that are recognizable and distinct, even at high speed.

The playing space is remarkably small, reduced from its usual tiny size to accommodate a thrust stage.  Yet with lively blocking by Roger Weiss and Nancy Woods, and fluid choreography by Denise Devin, the constant action flows clearly — and always interestingly.

I can’t think of any theatrical experience that will prepare you for Witch Ball; nothing to compare it to. But then, that’s what we expect when we walk into the little NoHo storefront.
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Witch Ball, by Zombie Joe, directed by Roger Weiss and Nancy Woods.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Narrators: Deirdre Anderson, Michael James Luckins and Nicole Sahagian.
Players: James Han, Stepy Kamei, Polina Matyeeva, Lezlie Moore, Matthew Peter Murphy, Bradley Orok and Nancy Woods

Saturdays at 8:30 pm, through May 9.

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