“Red Moon” Rising, but not Quite Full at Zombie Joe’s

One of the things I love about LA’s black-box theatres is they way they invite experiment.

Without overhead costs, union scales — or the tastes of subscription audiences — you can try something off-the-wall and see if it sticks.

The Red Moon, now in its inaugural run at Zombie Joe’s Underground in NoHo, is just such a venture.  For his maiden effort, librettist/ composer Ramon Sanchez  has penned a vampire rock opera — an art form at least as rare as the “blood moon” its title invokes.

Lara Lihiya, Jason Britt.

Lara Lihiya, Jason Britt.

Not many theatres would tackle such a project.  But veteran ZJU director Denise Devin — who routinely implodes Shakespeare’s massive works into one-hour fireballs — takes Sanchez’s lurid lunar fantasy in hand and lifts it high enough for us to see.

The story’s a somewhat unusual take on a vampire tale.  It’s told, from start to finish, not by a blood-drinker or a victim but by a vampire’s sister — making it as much about filial love as about feral hunger. This also makes it a rescue story, like the secondary plot line of Bram Stoker’s original Dracula.

And into the rescue comes religion. It’s an urban church of a vague, non-sectarian Christian sort, but its members are a force for the vampires to reckon with. Faith, in The Red Moon, is far more serious and effective than the crosses routinely waved in fanged faces.

Finally, of course, this is a musical — or rather, a rock opera. You won’t find rows of synchronized, singing dancers in Sanchez’s script (nor in ZJU’s tiny black box). What you will find are songs  carved out by the main characters, like arias — plus a duet here and there.

Out of these elements, Sanchez has constructed an engaging tale; but he hasn’t yet thought deeply enough about his characters.

The three principals — the vampire Roxana (Lara Lihiya), her sister Lauri (Nicole A. Craig) and Roxana’s lover/protege  Anthony (Jason Britt) — bring consistent intensity to their parts, find relationships, and ring the emotional changes well.  But their relationships, once stated, don’t change or develop much — they’re just put into conflict and then, eventually, resolved.

As for the other characters … well, Paul Carpenter works to give the church’s lay minister some complexity.  And Steve Alloway, Jackee Bianchi and Miriale Chiribao pour energy and conviction into their brief appearance as demons. But in their other roles, they simply come onstage and get killed.

Sanchez’s musical ideas are similarly underdeveloped.  Each song is interesting in itself, and states a character or situation — but nobody changes or grows during a song (a key part of an aria).  And none of the songs relate to each other.  They aren’t repeated, nor are their themes taken up and echoed or developed later.

The Red Moon is well begun.  Devin and her actors keep it lively and interesting, and we care about these people and their story.  But as the play goes on, we feel a bit cheated — as if someone is pulling a sleight of hand on us.

Where are the insides of these three people, their self-doubts, their uncertainties, their lifelong issues? Who are the stick figures around them ? (Sanchez might look at Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — it’s all about the question, “Do the minor characters have lives?”)

As he works this out dramatically, I feel sure Sanchez will also find his opera’s musical structure — its recurrent themes, its high-conflict moments, its ultimate resolution.

I look forward to seeing The Red Moon the next time it rises.
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The Red Moon, by Ramon Sanchez, directed by Denise Devin.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Fridays at 8:30, Saturdays at 9:30, through Sept. 26.

Tickets: <www.zombiejoes.com> or (818) 212-4120.