“I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Notes From the Underground”
It’s a strange name for a theatre, and you won’t see it prominently displaced on a well-lit marquee. If you travel north from the 101 – 134 freeways on Lankershim Boulevard with any regularity, you’ve passed the nondescript structure with the trio of large letters on its exterior facade: “Z. J. U”.
You’ve probably never wondered, if you’ve even noticed them at all, what they stood for.
“Zoning Jobs Unlimited”.
“Zoo Junkies Umbrellas”.
You probably just drove by mindlessly unaware of how very close you came to the “rabbit Hole” of L.A. theatre, for in fact another reading of those letters could be: “This Way Madness Lies.”
Zombie Joe’s Underground.
L.A. theatre is bristling with knaves and rogues (my category), artistic ego monsters, talent sucking hucksters, and crusading devotees of Dionysus. But there is only one Zombie Joe (yes, that’s his name).
Rumors concerning his background are as numerous as conspiracy theories regarding the Kennedy assassination; but frankly, I don’t care if he was born in a log cabin or shot into space as an infant from a dying planet, I’m simply glad he’s here in my city and that he brought his theatre with him.
Warning: Zombie Joe’s Underground is the roughest*, rawest, wackiest company in L.A.
You may love his shows or hate them but you’ll have a hard time forgetting ‘em. If you go in expecting the unexpected he’ll still manage to surprise you, and at times even drop your jaws so hard you risk breaking your toes.
In a venue so constricted that the actors are not so much in your face as on your lap, sans costly sets or costuming, Zombie Joe’s company will draw material from sources you can’t conceive being fashioned into shows, yet alone successful shows – say a six actor , ninety-minute adaptation of the Old Testament. Or they’ll mash and meld genres that seem as incompatible as cottage cheese and ketchup – such as Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” served up ala True Blood.
Though their productions tend to be like the bastard child of a one night stand between Grand Guignol and a Vegas lounge show, you will find more authentic Theatre (that’s capital “T”) at Z.J.U. on any given weekend than the “Mucus Center” and the “Painfultages” combined serve up in a whole season.
“Notes From Underground”, their current offering is fairly representative of what one will love or hate about Z.J.U.
First off, don’t go expecting Dostoevsky’s brooding, caustic existentialist diatribe. No, this production is more like a post modern, deconstructed, Gothic Looney Toon. Of course, not as soul-rupturing as the novel, as staged it is infinitely more accessible to a younger audience who are unlikely to have much truck with the work of the great Russian writer until someone devises an “app” for him.
First published in 1864, “Notes” is brimming with bitterness. Dostoevsky’s wife was in her final illness, his finances were in a perilous state, and he was under attack by his reading public for his increasingly conservative views. There is the same level of bitterness in the production at Zombie Joe’s Underground through drawn from a different source.
TJ Alvarado opens the story with a karaoke rendering of Joy Division’s Atmosphere as he glares down at the story protagonist. Here the “Underground man”, Alex (Michael Blomgren) is the outsider because of an inability to involve himself in the indulgences of his society. He feels out of place in the best club, is snubbed by those of the “in” crowd. He is pronounced worthless in a society where the highest measure of validation is achieved by being the focus of a reality TV show. Alex frantically scribbles notes on his opinion of everything in life, which is merely a means of distracting himself from living it. Blomgren’s performance is powerful and intense, and has a quality not unlike a Dr. Seuss character if Theodor Geisel had sold his soul to the devil.
One thing you can say about this production is it manages to be much funnier than the source material. Blomgren and Alvarado, as his man servant, wonderfully capture the essence of Laurel and Hardy’s evil twin brothers.
As Alex’s hated yet envied old school mates Chelsa Rose, Leif La Duke and Julie Bermel convey the sleazy seductiveness one finds only by subjecting themselves to watching a full season of Keeping up with the Kardashians. Their performances are deliciously depraved; they are the haut mondes depicted by Brueghel.
As in the novel, Alex is offered a chance to redeem his humanity in his relationship with the young whore Liza, played here by Jenna Jacobson, who manages to radiate a sensuality draped in the vulnerability of hopefulness.
Now true, the production does not seek to impose a thick coating of Dostoevsky’s “philosophical importance” on the audience; its intention, I think, is not to dig as deeply as the novel, but rather to crack the ice of a more youthful audience. References to North Hollywood abound, in which the book’s “biting commentary on society” is not lost, but focused to foster relevance. Yes, yes it is not pure Dostoevsky flowing from the font, but it doesn’t pretend to be.
I am reminded of the time I went to the movies with my friend Gene Dynarski (one of L.A.’s finest actors – bar none). We had gone to see Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 John Woo/MTV hodgepodge William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet featuring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. Frankly, we intended to swathe ourselves in our artistic smugness and subject it to our scathing derision for the total piece of crap that it was. We were both dumbfounded to discover it wasn’t. Not “totally” at least. There was Claire Danes amazing performance and a tomb scene that managed to rank as the best I’ve ever seen out of some three hundred plus performances of those star crossed lovers.
Sitting in the seats in front of us that day were two young Latinas dressed in standard Barrio Chic, wearing makeup probably applied with a paint roller. At the film’s end they turned to face each other in traumatized disbelief and simultaneously wailed, “They both die?!”
For exposing those two young ladies to the wonders of the Bard, Dynarski and I both agreed that perhaps Luhrmann hadn’t squandered the talent and originality so present in Strictly Ballroom. But then he did Moulin Rouge and we discussed putting out a contract on him.
Likewise if Zombie Joe’s Underground by its slick, manic, and very funny rendering of “Notes“ is how someone is lured into reading Dostoevsky, so be it. Does it degrade a classic of world literature into a glitzy caricature of itself? Yeah, I guess. But it also scrubs the cobwebs of academia off a work usually remembered in connection with the tedium of some High School lecture to display it as something fresh and surprisingly vibrant. Besides, it’s only fifty-frigging-minutes! That’s not time enough to go clambering up onto your high horse.
Finally, the delightfully twisted cast is joined seamlessly to the exquisitely twisted concept under the direction of Josh T. Ryan who skillfully infuses his inspired theatricality into the staging. It is a valid criticism that he plays fast and loose with the work’s ponderous “meaningfulness”, but I’m okay with that, being a firm proponent that the wisest wisdom is that of the whimsical.
I enjoyed the heck out of this show. In fact I enjoy the heck out of just about all the shows I see there. No other theatre in L.A. can utilize so very little and yet fill a stage so extraordinarily as the folks at Zombie Joe’s Underground.
What is offered here is a unique and jarringly manic comédie rosse take on a classic work of Russian literature, and while it may not be your Ecstasy-spiked cup of tea, the next time you’re driving up Lankershim I’ll bet your bippy you remember what Z.J.U. stands for.
*Per Peter Brook’s “An Empty Space”
Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground
Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group in North Hollywood
4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood
scheduled to end on March 1, 2013
Show Times Fridays @ 8:30 P.M. (No show February 15)