Los Angeles Theater Review: DEVILS LOVE AT MIDNIGHT and ROMEO AND JULIET (Zombie Joe’s)

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by Harvey Perr on August 27, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

THE ZOMBIE JOE AESTHETIC

With each new production, inch by inch, layer by layer, we get closer and closer to tasting the artichoke heart of Zombie Joe. It is not a question anymore of which production is better; it is a question of how complex the new images are and how they sustain the mystique Zombie Joe has created. Urban Death may remain his signature piece and, therefore, the one essential piece (i.e., if you’re only going to see one), but it is always fascinating to see how deep are the roots of his obsessions and in what ways their branches will continue to grow.

Devils Love at Midnight, Zombie Joe's Underground, Los Angeles TheaterDevils Love at Midnight consists of small pieces – little plays, bits of poems, ideas waiting for further development – and, frankly, they neither add much to what we’ve already seen in previous work nor cohere into a unified evening; but, nevertheless, they provide, at best, further illumination of Zombie Joe’s crowded and bountiful mind. And, best of all, the evening gives his actors something new to sink their teeth into. And they respond generously, by making sure every bone is licked clean. Amy Gotham, for example, pulls all the stops out with what may be one of the funniest and most terrifying performances in town. Whether she is Celia or the person who is responsible for Celia’s death in “Only Ever One” or whether she is the ghost of Violet Nantucket in “The Sad Soul-Searching Spirit of Sweet Lil’ Violet Nantucket” or whether she is both rolled into one, Gotham creates a wickedly creepy atmosphere that defines what I call the Zombie Joe aesthetic. And a confrontation between two brothers is a blistering portrait of filial conflict, saying in a few words what some plays have taken hours to say, and saying it not only tersely but with a psychological acuity that is particularly interesting because this seems to be a theater which eschews the psychological in favor of the confrontational. In general, Devils Love at Midnight starts tentatively but builds and builds and, by evening’s end, generates real steam.

Devils Love at Midnight, Zombie Joe's Underground, Los Angeles TheaterTheir abridgements of classic plays are equally fascinating, and, of the two that I have seen – Hamlet, Prince of Darkness and Romeo and Juliet – their Hamlet was closer to the Zombie Joe aesthetic and was directed by Denise Devin with great comic style and displayed a genuine respect for Shakespeare even as she skewered his play; but I think that, in Ms. Devin’s production of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, she has really come into her own. This is a surprisingly straightforward production and, in many ways, it is one of the best productions of the play this reviewer has ever seen. It is simply and gracefully staged, and whatever it lacks in size and pageantry and tragic depth, it more than makes up for in its clarity, in the fun it has (which suggests how easily a tragedy can morph into a comedy) and, above all, in the way it captures the swooning of very young lovers. The famed balcony scene becomes an exercise in two lustful teens trying to get at each other that is totally entrancing. It helps, too, that Alexis Justman’s Juliet has some Beatrice in her, and even a Kate waiting to be tamed, and that Robert Walters’s Romeo has located the Hamlet lying inside Romeo. And I never thought of Mercutio as a crazy person, but Rafael Goldstein makes a deliciously hilarious and totally convincing attempt at proving a case for madness in him. And his death scene is something to behold. And the swordplay, particularly in so small a space, is dazzling and brief enough so that we don’t have to worry about the actors getting hurt (or, if you’re in the first row, getting hurt yourself).

Romeo and Juliet, Zombie Joe's Underground, Los Angeles Theater

As the play moves forward into its almost absurdly tragic ending, we are so caught up in the sense of movement and of chase that it is almost as if everything might have turned out all right, if only someone – anyone – had got somewhere – anywhere – in time. Of course, isn’t that what Romeo and Juliet was always about?

Romeo and Juliet, Zombie Joe's Underground, Los Angeles Theater

And so Zombie Joe’s Underground continues its mystical journey into the dark unknown. And it just may be that Zombie Joe himself has no idea where it is all headed. But he and his company are having a great time finding their way. And so are we.

Romeo and Juliet, Zombie Joe's Underground, Los Angeles Theater

Devils Love at Midnight
Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre in North Hollywood
Fridays at 11:00 p.m. through September 2, 2011 (check for extensions)
photos by Jana Wimer

Romeo and Juliet
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. through October 8, 2011
photos by Denise Devin
for tickets, visit Zombie Joe’s

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