Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Dummies (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Zombie Joe's can be counted on to try new things. Far too often, many theatres seek to just recreate hits of the past. They'll do straightforward productions of plays from Broadway that did well in the last decade. Or find something fun, a crowd-pleaser (and as a member of the crowd who sometimes finds such things pleasing, I've no complaints they do that). We in Los Angeles remain very lucky that our theatre community includes folks doing much, much edgier works. Like most things at ZJU!

Dummies by Robert Reimer (author of last years Whore's Bath) dives right into the edge and hovers there, ready to fall. I joked with some members of the cast on opening night that the script reminded me of "Tennessee Williams writing a medieval morality play on lots of meth." In once sense that remains exactly my impression.

But the whole thing deserves lots more detail. A word about style here. Reimer's plays wander somewhere in between nightmares and a kind of declamatory series of declarations where world-views joust with each other for dominance. I think his stuff works best (as with The Fainting Couch) when this is joined with action, with something resembling a plot. This one does that, creating what one might call a revenge tragedy of spectacular cruelty. Indeed, my opening night comments aside, this felt a lot like a distilled essence of a Jacobean tragedy--a glimpse of the world-as-hell, rendered so by human choice and sin, polluting all people and places in their wake. It works that way! But it has several challenges, which director and cast must overcome.

I'm not dissing the author. This remains more-or-less true of all scripts.

But when the lines for the most part consist of monologues interrupting each other (stylistically correct, but tricky to make work), the performers need to work harder. And the director, Zombie Joe himself in this case, needs to orchestrate and motivate all the more.

First we meet Clair (Deneen Melody) and her sister Claudia (Gloria Galvan), the latter mute throughout at least in terms of spoken words. The play lasts an hour, which might be just as well given how much of an emotional horror show it turns out to be. These two sisters are at its bleeding, wounded heart--children of appetites, defined by same. Before long we meet a client, JJ (Adam Neubauer), who has come to the house called Nowhere seeking their sexual favors, having heard of them but knowing little. He doesn't believe or pay much heed to what they tell him. Probably thinks them mad. Foolishly, for this reason he seems to think them harmless.

The year is 1935, but we soon journey back to 1915 when the seeds of what is about to happen first took root--poisonous plants in almost barren soil. Then this house belonged to Doris (Anne Westcott) and her husband Horace (Sebastian Munoz) with their teenaged daughter Grace (Kristi Ellingsworth), paid a visit by Horace's obnoxious, rich brother Jonny (John Lewandowski). He has a proposition...

All the characters seem and are bigger than life--or perhaps as big as life gets might be a better way to put it. Were they written that way? To some extent, yes. But the actors themselves had to rise to that level, and the whole ensemble did. Indeed, apart from the whole almost-sublime horror show of the plot, staged so well by the director (honestly, I've never not enjoyed a play directed by Zombie Joe), I want to point out a few performers for real excellence. No one did a poor job. Every single one rose to the challenge of what must be a difficult play to perform--not least because of the heightened nature of the language. But Deneen Melody, Gloria Galvan, Sebastian Munoz and Z33RO just knock everything out of the park--not least by their raw commitment to every single movement and action demanded of them. For what these four achieve alone I would recommend the show. Anne Westcott and Sasha Snow likewise bring some genuinely difficult characters to (uncomfortable) life, along with the help of Shelby Wilson as one of many prostitutes that litter the dramatis personae.

Make no mistake, this makes for an evening of horrific theatre. A nightmare brought to life. A tragedy of human error that wrecks human souls. Not for the faint of heart.

But if this is your taste, if gazing into such an abyss is what you find worthwhile, I do recommend the show.

Dummies plays Saturday evenings at 8:30pm through October 4, 2014 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre at 4850 Lankershim, North Hollywood CA 91601 (across the street from KFC, just south of the NoHo sign). Tickets are $15 each, and can be purchased at or by calling (818) 202-4120.

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