Here I am again, all the way out in North Hollywood under that familiar white sign with the black block letters, “ZJU.” Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater is one of the stranger ways to spend a night in North Hollywood, and that’s saying something for a city that has a mummified clown about a block from where I’m now standing (shoutouts to California Institute of Abnormalarts). I’m here to see a show called, Hyenas: An American Farce, written by David Dickens and directed by Brandon Slezak. What is it about? Silly child, this is ZJU, you get no synopsis, just vague poster and a time to show up. I should know by now to never try to guess what I’m getting myself into with these shows, but I just can’t help myself. A pointed political satire, perhaps? The first time I saw Urban Death it featured two men in suits jacking each other off while exchanging slaps with fistfuls of money. If ever a more appropriate metaphor for our current political climate existed. The theater got the best of me again, serving up something completely unexpected but certainly not unwelcome.
The basic premise of Hyenas: An American Farce is our main character, Martin (Ian Michaels), is starting a new job at a company that makes laughs, specifically by writing funny things down on a notepad, crumbling them up, and throwing them into a number of furnaces that litter the company’s walls. This comedy then gets spread out into the world and by the transitive law of underpants gnome logic becomes what makes TV funny. The only thing remotely related to America in the show is that Martin is making comedy for Americans, you see the company only makes laughs for America and Africa, and Africa is far too great of a challenge for a rookie, given that everyone there is sick and dying. The company is led by Professor Brad (Paul Thorn Bacon), a manic cartoon with a soothing baritone voice that I can only describe as an older Robbie Rotten, for those of you who enjoy children’s television and dank memes. The professor explains that in addition to the vital work they do in making laughs, the job has a dark side: sitcom directors are using laugh tracks which are bad for business, and thus must be eliminated. How is this accomplished, you may ask? Well by beating them to death with a gun, of course. They can’t just shoot them, they aren’t barbarians.
From here the plot splits between Martin’s relationship with his ghost/zombie wife Maureen (Liz Lanier) and a story of blackmail and corporate espionage as he’s forced to become a pawn in the battle between his company and the powerful interests that want to protect the use of laugh tracks. Michael’s performance is energetic and likable, with Martin being just comfortable enough in this surreal world while still possessing a charming befuddlement that he serves as a bridge into their world. Lanier is given a difficult job as the other part of their supernaturally dysfunctional relationship, having to move between deadpan and batshit to portray her characters many mood shifts, a challenge she manages to pull off, earning some of the biggest laughs of the night. The rest of the cast is similarly boisterous and kinetic, with several cast members playing multiple roles that (sometimes quite literally) burst off the stage. If I had any complaints it would be that the plot seems at points incidental, which can lead to the feeling that the narrative is being shoehorned in to fit the performances rather than the characters existing in the world.
Perhaps that shouldn’t have come as a surprise. A farce is defined as, “a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations.” Hyenas: An American Farce takes this concept to an extreme, with an absurd premise that suggests an internal logic that simply plays by a completely alien set of rules. This effect is made all the more convincing by a cast of characters that stomp about the stage and gesticulate wildly with a conviction that forces the viewer to conclude they must know what they’re doing, and as a result, we accept their ludicrous ways. It’s slapstick, an Alice in Wonderland vaudeville show that paints a world in strange, board strokes and fills it with enigmatic characters that make you forget you’ve forgotten what’s going on. I laughed, in fact I would say I spent more time laughing than not laughing, which I can’t say for most comedies I see in theaters. Given that seeing a show at ZJU costs about as much as a movie ticket and features a large cast of talented actors, it’s absolutely worth making the trip out. The show recently ended its run, but I look forward to seeing what their creative troupe comes up with next.