Pages from a Forbidden Book: “Urban Death”

You enter a common-looking place with friends, talking and laughing.  The host is friendly, the decor is a little odd — well, a lot odd — but it’s time to go to the inner room. You sit. You wait, chatting, while music plays. Suddenly, the place goes dark.

Someone giggles nervously. It stays dark. The giggle dies. You begin to feel alone, to wonder if something may be creeping toward you, when —

Flash! Lights reveal a . . . is that a person? . . .  And what are they —   Oh my god!

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(Photos: Marti Matulis)

And then darkness.  Utter darkness.  Some sort of sound . . . music, circus music, and people start to laugh, and —

Flash! What –?  That’s not — ugh — you can’t look — nooo . . .

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Darkness.

And so it goes at Zombie Joe’s classic, Urban Death.  An hour in a small blackbox theatre that’s like being let into a dungeon to peer at pages in an ancient portfolio of horrors.

Except that these horrors are sometimes modern.  Some make you laugh as well as squirm. Some make you almost leap out of your chair and run. And a few bring you close to tears.

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A gruesome death.  A family moment slowly going painfully awry, like a candle melting.  A gleeful trio taking pleasure in a way that has you trying not to look, while people near you cry “Please,  no! Not that!” A familiar children’s game ending with an unimaginable shock.

Urban Death is a compilation of disturbing moments, a candy box of terrors individually wrapped in darkness.  The flavors are familiar, yet always changing.  In an hour, the actors of this year’s incarnation bring to life (or death) more than three dozen sudden, wordless scenes. The pace seems impossible, and the performers’ intensity and precision are inescapable.

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The elements and the setting are so simple you are deceived.  Because the artistry that unfolds is swift and effective, assaultive and anxiety-producing, yet amusing.  You leave still gasping for breath, laughing with relief, and musing privately on what these moments have stirred up inside you.

Urban Death shows what a dozen years of practice by dedicated professionals can create.  In a tiny storefront theatre, with only half a hundred seats.  (Reservations advised.)
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Urban Death, created by the company, directed by Zombie Joe and Jana Wimer.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

The Company: Charlotte Bjornbak, Vanessa Cate, Shayne Eastin, Elif Savas Felson, Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson, David Wyn Harris, Ian Heath, Kevin Pollard Jr., Danny Whitehead, Melissa Whitman.

Saturdays at 11:00 pm, through May 17th.

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

Disclaimer: I am a longtime member of the ZJU performing family, and have appeared in several installments of Urban Death, but I had no part in this production.