Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre in North Hollywood is one of the single most important performance spaces in Los Angeles. The bland storefront along Lankershim Boulevard isn’t much to look at really. One would never guess that it was home to one of the most shocking, moving, startling performance pieces of 2017 but it does. The 2017 Spring Edition of Urban Death premiered last weekend to overflow crowds eager to be challenged and the show did not disappoint. This is probably one of the best versions of the show we have seen in years.
Waiting outside the locked door, we were the very first to arrive for the performance. As the 11pm performance time grew closer a line of devoted fans of the absurd and the curious snaked along the sidewalk waiting for the door to the theatre to open. A metal clank and beloved proprietor Zombie Joe opens the door and welcomes his audience into the lobby to purchase tickets. A rush of pungent incense floods our nostrils in a dimly lit, sparsely decorated lobby and we are once again home.
To explain, Urban Death is what happens when you mix Theatre of Cruelty, Butoh Theatre, and the infamous Grand Guignol styles of performance with a particularly Californian twist. There is no story to speak of, no consistent narrative to the 45 minute show. It is a series of viscios vignettes that explore humanity in all of its nasty forms.
As we enter the 50-seat, black box theatre the tonally perfect music of Christopher Reiner fogs the air with inescapable dread. A female performer stands hunched over in the far corner of the room. She is in a tattered white dress that is caked with blood all down the front side. She looks off into space as the audience fills the theatre, taking their seats. She occasionally giggles, laughs, even cries. The sheer emotional power flowing from this performer is a sampling of what is coming.
The lights fall to black and the music swells. When the lights rise we are treated to scene after scene of extremes and absurdity. In one scene a dominatrix services a business man in one of the most disgusting ways possible. In another scene a beautiful woman combs her hair as a man stands behind her, longing to be as pretty as she. In still another scene a grouping of clowns stares the audience down going from happy and jovial to menacing on a dime. Then of course there is the always wonderful hatchet boy sequence.
Fearless and bold, the ensemble bares all in the name of shock and reaction. There is not a single weak link in the cast of this show with everyone hitting their marks on both performance and effectiveness. Adam Shows, a once meek performer has grown to become a deceptively terrifying asset to the show. Dasha Kittredge brings her voracious femininity and carnal presence to the Z.J.U. stage for the first time and it is a match made in theatre heaven. It’s also a joy to see Ian Heath grace the stage again with his lanky frame that seems to be made of elastic and bones. Finally we can’t forget the jaw-dropping work of Shayne Eastin whose angular movements and powerful work punctuate each scene she graces.
This has to be one of the strongest incarnations of Urban Death in a while. This time the show keeps true to its heritage by staying pitch black. This is not to say that it is all dead serious. Urban Death certainly has a playful side, luring the audience in close enough to really get a good strike in. I will be going back to see this one again and again.