Monday, August 12, 2013

Blistered Hands and Bloody Mouths (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Zombie Joe's theatre has lasted a quarter century for many reasons. One remains the fact the shows presented remain very entertaining. You step into their black box in North Hollywood and you can pretty much count on some kind of roller coaster ride. It might blow your mind or tickle your funny bone or any one of a dozen other reactions (often combining them) but theater-goers in this town know some of what to expect. And know they'll be surprised as well!

Bistered Hands and Bloody Mouths by Sam LaFrance fulfills that promise.

Now understand--I grew up in the Deep South. Lots of folks don't agree because of where I was for two decades, i.e. Florida. But we're talking northern Florida, a long way from Miami, a place where KKK rallies and Confederate flags along with lots of (great!) fried food and the smell of honeysuckle form part of the whole mise-en-scene. Been through twelve hurricanes growing up and I promise you that is one reason earthquakes seem less frightening to me. Some people doubt when I talk about walking quite comfortably in warm rain, or a level of habitual hospitality at odds with the South's image (sometimes justifiably). This play captures something very Southern, and not in a particularly stereotypical way. More an archetype. And with something genuinely individual.

Margaret (Valorie Hubbard) is the first face we see on stage (the lady in question also directed) and she immediately did something that impressed me. She said the same line several times, with the same meaning, and remained interesting. That consists of no small feat! That also set the quality level for the whole show. Pretty soon Margaret in her panic over "Ray" coming back shoots up her front door--only to discover Ray isn't there and she missed anyway! Several times!

Yeah, Margaret drinks.

Enter Millie (Anastasia Charalambous, a veteran of Fragments of Oscar Wilde at ZJU earlier this year), a statuesque blonde with legs that go on forever (especially in that black dress!) and a mane of platinum hair. She is Margaret's roommate--which makes for a quite a contrast, as Margaret herself is older, frumpy and round, sans the slightest hint of glamor.

Credit: Victoria Watlington
As we can guess from the opening scene as well as the poster, sooner or later Ray does show up. The playwright himself plays this part, and as might have guessed he's in orange prison duds, but with a gray jacket. A tad more disturbing are the copious blood stains. But we also kinda/sorta expected that.

What follows in fact consists of a bizarre blend of the expected and the shocking, the horrific and the hilarious. After the curtain call someone sitting next to me compared the show to something by Sam Shephard. I piped in there was a lot of Quentin Tarantino as well! By which I mean the characters as written not only resort to violence (of different kinds and styles) but all tend towards self-righteous--and frequently erroneous--proclamations of "fact." They each qualify as major league eccentrics, in one way or another, but see themselves as the very standard of sanity and good sense. Yet at the same time realize each remains seriously messed up. A mass of contradictions, from Millie's efforts to be "kind" and Margaret's genuine concern wrapped in prejudice to Ray's work ethic.

But much of this comes down to actual performances. Frankly most theater or any form of performing art rests squarely on the quality of those who enact it.

LaFrance as Ray could easily have fallen into cliche--the half-sane, violent bully who sees himself as a romantic figure and cannot wrap his head much around anyone else's point of view. Ray is all those things, but at heart he remains somehow innocent, or at least naive rather than stupid. Stupid, too, but at the same time rather clever--in a mind-bogglingly foolish way.

Charalambous as Millie plays a diamond in the rough, or at least that seems to be her self image. She believes (accurately as far as that goes) herself the most intelligent person in this group. In many ways, at first, she also seems the most normal or reasonable person we've met. But then, cracks begin to show. Not least what is apparently a bit of a dental fetish. And a demonstrated impatience with the world around her. For that very reason she's the funniest person on stage. Millie literally boils with energy, so she remains busy nearly all the time--from writing notes to snapping her fingers to pacing or letting her foot vibrate like a tuning fork while tied up and trying to get someone to untie her. Humor often comes from a disconnect between expectation and experience. Millie very nearly embodies that (most especially regarding the bag and Ray's game). Of course that is also how on a visceral level we recognize madness.

Hubbard's Margaret is the most fragile of the three, which one thinks would inspire our pity. It does, actually. But we also kinda want to slap her. When such a psychological train wreck spends so much of her time telling others what they're doing wrong with their lives, how can we not see this as ridiculous? And arrogant? The fact none of the things she complains about matter, while her remaining totally ignorant of this, is part of what pushes the whole piece into a realm of almost hyper-reality.

All of which ends up compelling on a human level, and yet very funny from a very dark place indeed.

Blistered Hands and Bloody Mouths plays Tuesdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 7pm on August 6, 11, 13, 18, 20 and 25 at Zombie Joe's Theater, 4850 Lankershim Blvd. (across from KFC and just south of the NoHo Sign), North Hollywood CA 91601. You can make reservations at (818) 202-4120. Tickets are only $15, and well worth it IMHO.

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