Southern Discomfort: “Dummies” at ZJU

Once again, there’s something new going down at ZJU.

Zombie Joe’s Underground, the home of Urban Death, is known for pushing the theatrical envelope, finding new places theatre can go that we hadn’t thought of.  Sometimes, they find places we’d have been more comfortable not knowing about.

They’ve found another one.  In Dummies, director Zombie Joe hops into  playwright Robert Riemer’s latest feverish vehicle, kicks the starter and roars off into a new, disturbingly comic country.

Adam Neubauer, Deneen Melody, Gloria Galvan

Adam Neubauer, Deneen Melody, Gloria Galvan

Y’all know the South?  Of course you do.

Throughout the 20th century, at least half America’s major writers told tales dripping with racial guilt and Spanish moss, fragrant with magnolias and incest.   No matter where we lived, we knew the South.  It held the darkest shadows of our world-saving empire.  The characters of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams,  Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee, stood large in our imaginations, telling us who we really were.

We’re not in Arkansas anymore, Toto.  The perfect storm of the post-modern world has torn us up and, with Dummies, sets us down in another country.  Here, the icons our parents and grandparents  earnestly wrestled with have morphed.  They’re now stock comic characters, in predictably — and laughably –grotesque situations.

The lights come up on a pair of lightly clad young women, locked in an intense, protective embrace.   Clair (Deneen Melody) slathers cartoonish makeup on the gauze-wrapped face of Claudia (Gloria Galvan) while delivering a monolog that lets us know this is a house of ill repute in a backwoods land of poverty and incest.

We never leave.  For the next hour, at breakneck speed, the family romps and wrangles through its dysfunctional history, piling shock upon insult as gleefully as a server mounding spaghetti on a plate.  Innocence and honor are swiftly raped by lust and greed, and arise from their grave-beds pregnant with revenge.

But this hapless, conscienceless clan descending into hell is funny.  The hour sparks more laughter than three nights at a comedy club.
Characters who were our culture’s tortured heroes have become Punch and Judy, Harlequin and the Old Lecher; classic tragedy has turned the corner into commedia dell’arte.

We ‘re laughing at ourselves.  We used to cry.  Any news blog will tell you it’s not because we’ve conquered our demons (“Ferguson,” anyone?).  Are we giving up the heroic folly, and learning instead to live with them?  I don’t know.

What I do know is that Dummies is a disturbing, raucous ride into this unnamed country.   Zombie Joe clusters his actors, family members crawling over one another as if in heat, even while arguing fiercely.  He maintains a breathless pace.

And he has (as always) bold, talented actors.

Galvan and Adam Neubauer (as the patriarch’s heir, J.J.) show what utter fearlessness can accomplish.  John Lewandowski (the randy,  sociopathic patriarch), Sebastian Muñoz (his spineless brother) and Anne Westcott (the brother’s wife) tear at their triangle with terrific energy, whipping through changes.  And Kristi Ellingsworth (the briefly innocent Grace) carries us through her arc with strength and focus.

Amid such highly achieved work, two performers demand special mention.  One is  actor-dancer IAM Z33RO, who creates riveting, unexpected presences in both sexes, with delightful speed and brio.  The other is the redoubtable Melody, who can take exposition monologs that would make Hamlet quaver and pour them out in a honeyed drawl, purring and pawing herself (and anyone in reach), without losing a syllable.  She can hold a tale together, and Zombie Joe uses her wisely to do just that.

I confess, I don’t take easily to Riemer’s scripts.  Though I share his loathing of the patriarchy, his plays often seem to me more rant than story.  But in Dummies, he and Zombie Joe have joined forces to discover something new, disturbing, and very funny.  Don’t you love farce?

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Dummies, by Robert Riemer, directed by Zombie Joe.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Saturdays at 8:30 pm, through October 4.

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