Monday, November 10, 2014

Gravedigger (Review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

When viewing Gravedigger: Tales From The Grave, I had a sense of deja vu. This show, playing at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group in NoHo, turned out to be written and directed by the same person responsible for the very first play I reviewed at ZJU--The Bloody Countess about Erzebet Bathori--Bea Egeto, whom I chatted with after the show.

This specific work continues with the grand guignol lite mode of the previous.  Images of real life horror, historical re-enactments, sans elaborate makeup and special effects.  But rather than follow one specific murderer we visit (with our robed host, who silently seems to fullfill the role of Cryptkeeper from Tales from the Crypt or maybe Elvira from Movie Macabre) a whole slew of them.

The Black Dahlia. Jeffrey Dahmer. Jack the Ripper. Victims of the Witch Trials. Mary Seurat (hanged for the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln).

Photo Credit: Zombie Joe's Underground
Adding to this are more general "types' of violent murders, such as the wife poisoning her abusive husband or the bizarre events surrounding a seance, as well as (this was really disturbing) a man who commits suicide via asphyxiation. This last contained what I personally found the most poetically interesting moment in the whole piece. Recall The Gravedigger (Daniel Krause) hovers and sometimes participates in each scene. For this one, the grief-stricken man cannot quite bring himself to do the deed until our mute guide puts a hand on his shoulder, as if giving him what is needed to ease his pain.

Lovely as this is--and I really, really liked that detail--this both highlights what is best and what doesn't quite work in the show as a whole. First, we do have a wonderful cast, many of whom qualify as newcomers to ZJU. Alla Arutyunyan for example as Anne Frank (arguable the most famous "victim') was just one of a pretty stellar group of performers whom I was delighted to see for the first time. I at first felt a tad puzzled by Page Smith and Martin Mendez as a pair of clowns who periodically walked on stage and did a marvelous job--finally enacting a metaphor and pun in theme with the entire work. Likewise I really enjoyed seeing actors like Melissa Munoz, Sandy Sanchez, Sue Shaheen and John Hunt play their various roles, often with gusto and tiny flourishes.

Photo Credit: Zombie Joe's Underground
On a sidenote, I was amused and pleased to see Charlotte Bjornbak once again as Erzebet Bathori.

But honestly I found two overall problems with Gravedigger, neither of which make the show bad but do cut into its overall quality. One is subtle--a almost intangible lack of focus, which interrupted the performance's flow. Took at least fifteen minutes for everything to start to 'gel' into a whole, to gather a momentum I could feel and anticipate. Up until then, individual scenes felt like precisely that, rather than parts of a whole heading towards a climax. Although--let us be fair--the final scene enacting the Jim Jones Massacre proved compelling in the extreme, so much so I found it uncomfortable to watch. Kudos! (And I don't say that simply because Mark Hein, as Jones, is a friend of mine).

The second problem felt like a lack of sufficient depth with most of the vignettes. Already mentioned the (really quite beautiful in a macabre way) bit about the Gravedigger touching the suicide's shoulder. Likewise the Seance sequence, while baffling in terms of content (at least to me) , proved absolutely riveting because each single character felt real somehow. I didn't know what was going on, but they most certainly did! There was also the last words of one of Jack the Ripper's victims, which surprised me. Methinks that is the point. The best theatre, like the best storytelling in general, surprises while making perfect sense. Ultimately, I was only sometimes surprised, when to work best nearly all these scenes needed something to startle, to shock, to see events in a totally new light (or darkness).

Each scene that had such as surprise (a solid handful) kept my attention at least fives times as much as the rest. Which, to be fair, makes for a pretty good score in an hour-long performance.

Gravedigger has a limited 3-weekend run, with performances Fridays & Saturdays at 8:30pm, November 14, 15, and 22 then a special late-night Friday performance on Friday, November 21 at 11pm. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at or you can call 818-202-4120.

No comments: