ZJU’s “50-Hour” Whips Up Five Smart, Dark Comedies

Many LA theatre companies now stage a weekend of “instant plays” — short pieces conceived, written and rehearsed in a day or two.  Zombie Joe’s Underground is currently presenting its “14th Annual 50-Hour Drive-By Theatre Festival.”

Five playwrights, four directors, and 18 actors jumped into the mix. On Thursday night, each writer received a handful of random props. Friday night, the performers got their scripts; and Saturday (with backstage support), the show opened.

As the uncomfortably urban name suggests, ZJU’s instant plays keep an eye on the dark side, peering into mayhem and mystery.  And as Friday’s night’s SRO crowd expected, they also share the NoHo horror/comedy house’s distinct style — fierce, focused and physical.

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For a light first course, Katherine Bowman’s Meet the Susans serves a birthday cake for one of three women (Elif Savas Felsen, Tanushree Verma and Michelle Moraveg) who share … more than usual.  A stiff military messenger (a delightful comic turn by Caitlin Carleton) casts a pall on the party, then hesitantly joins in … more than usual.

Things darken with Jim Eshom’s Patient 99, a sardonic peek at a messianic faith in the post-apoc future.  Hannah Kaplan, known for her manic energy, anchors this one with mordant stillness;  Ian Heath and Jordyn DeMarco fuse in a comic duet like two Marx siblings; and Cheryl Doyle sprinkles sweet ditz on top.

Half of Infinity, by Steven W. Alloway, turns the Frankentrope to comic use, with a nerdy doctor and his faithful assistant cobbling together his dream woman.  Clever inversion: the creature (Elena Ray) moves with fluid energy, while the humans are almost immobile (but Colin Mitchell and Gloria Galvan are eloquent even in silence).

Adam Neubauer’s The Original plunges deep into the dark, as three desperate survivors (Tucker Matthews, Abel Horwitz and Jennifer Chun) track a mad killer through his clones (loony avatars of Billy Minogue).  Flashlights, sweating fear, death struggles — and constant laughter.

Finally, Vanessa Cate’s Forever returns us to daylight.  But not in comfort.  A nervous woman (Jonica Patella, who gives an actor’s lesson in saying “Oh”) awaits one guest, but is surprised by another.  Amid high anxiety, the tottering triangle (its male parts sweetly held by Julian Vulcan and Scott Sytten) finds an unexpected balance.

An “instant play” festival is truly the art of the soufflé — whipped up quickly, baked swiftly, and served at once.  The crew in Zombie Joe’s kitchen prepares their dishes with skill and ferocity, as if there’d never be another meal — and with precise discipline.  The result: five comic plays that are light but full of dark flavors, with a hint of … is that blood?
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“The 50-Hour Drive-By Theatre Festival”:
Meet the Susans, by Katherine Bowman, directed by Jana Wimer;
Patient 99, written and directed by Jim Eshom;
Half of Infinity, by Steven W. Alloway, directed by Sebastian Muñoz;
The Original, by Adam Neubauer, directed by Roger K. Weiss;
Forever, by Vanessa Cate, directed by Denise Devin.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Monday, Jan. 26th at 8:30 pm.

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