“Witch Ball” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

A lot of theatres close up shop for the Easter weekend, so it wasn’t easy finding a show to see on Good Friday (the night of Christ’s death), or Holy Saturday (the night the dead Christ spent in the Holy Sepulcher). But one perhaps appropriately-named theatre carried on that weekend, and in fact opened a show on Holy Saturday – Witch Ball, presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group.

James Han and Stepy Kamei in "Witch Ball"  Photo: Roger K. Weiss

James Han and Stepy Kamei in “Witch Ball” Photo: Roger K. Weiss

A visit to Zombie Joe’s is unlike your usual theatrical experience for a number of reasons. When you walk in the space in North Hollywood (or North Hollyweird, as Zombie Joe affectionately calls it), the first thing that strikes you is the smell of incense. The second is the fact that you’re surrounded not only by photos and posters of past productions, but also by skulls, decapitated heads, and other severed body parts scattered about. And the ambient music, which when I was there was mostly Indian raga, instantly transports you to another dimension.

"The Pit and the Pendulum" (2008) Photo: Zombie Joe's Underground

“The Pit and the Pendulum” (2008) Photo: Zombie Joe’s Underground

But the atmosphere isn’t all that distinguishes Zombie Joe’s, which is in its 23rd season, the 15th in its current location. Unlike other theatres which play a single show for several performances a week for a four or six week run, ZJU’s shows generally have only one or two performances per week – but several of them play on the same weekend. Indeed, according to the company, on any given weekend, audiences can see a minimum of three shows, and as many as five, with regular evening performances on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and late-night shows Friday and Saturday. The theatre has a company of about 100 actors – the “core” numbers about 50 – and 40 or so of them may be working at any time. And since all the shows are around an hour in length, and tickets are never more than $15, you could probably attend an entire weekend without exhausting either yourself or your wallet.

Sea Witch & Minions from "Whore's Bath" (2013) Photo: Zombie Joe's Underground

Sea Witch & Minions from “Whore’s Bath” (2013) Photo: Zombie Joe’s Underground

Among the things you can see in the next few months at Zombie Joe’s are a revival of the company’s “signature horror show,” Urban Death, directed by Zombie Joe and Jana Wimer, playing at 11:00 PM on Saturdays from April 11 to May 16; Denise Devin’s unique vision of Macbeth, which will play Fridays at 8:30 PM and Sundays at 7:00 PM from April 24 to May 31; Bedlam Explosivo XXL Variety Hour, directed by Sebastian Munoz, described as a “variety-Caburlesque,” which has been extended on Fridays at 11:00 PM from April 17 to May 8; and Witch Ball, which opened on Holy Saturday and plays Saturdays at 8:30 PM through May 9.

Zombies Rising from "Urban Death" (2007) Photo: Zombie Joe's Underground

Zombies Rising from “Urban Death” (2007) Photo: Zombie Joe’s Underground

I attended the opening of Witch Ball and found it fascinating. Written by Zombie Joe himself, who describes it as an “all-encompassing passion-play,” Witch Ball is the centuries-long story of a magical glass globe, within which dwell trapped evil spirits. The hour-long piece has a cast of ten who fan out through the tiny space, seemingly occupying every inch of it at one point or another. The entire cast wears fantastical makeup – some with rhinestones and intricate tattoos, others with tribal-looking smears, all with black fingernails and black toenails on their bare feet.

The "Witch Ball" cast out of makeup. L-R Top row: James Han, Michael James Luckins, Polina Matveeva, Matthew Peter Murphy, Nicole Sahagian; Bottom row: Deirdre Anderson, Lezlie Moore, Stepy Kamei, Nancy Woods, Bradley Orok. Photo: Roger K. Weiss

The “Witch Ball” cast out of makeup. L-R Top row: James Han, Michael James Luckins, Polina Matveeva, Matthew Peter Murphy, Nicole Sahagian; Bottom row: Deirdre Anderson, Lezlie Moore, Stepy Kamei, Nancy Woods, Bradley Orok. Photo: Roger K. Weiss

Though its story line is linear, coherent, and accessible, Witch Ball nevertheless calls to mind absurdist theatre pieces such as Tristan Tzara’s The Gas Heart and other dada-esque works. Its use of over-the-top narration, histrionic declamation, occasional non sequiturs and anachronistic jokes, extensive individual and synchronized movement – including some actual dance routines – and ritualized makeup and choral work, hark back to “experimental” theatre productions, shows people did because they felt things and wanted to express them, rather than calculate how much they could bring in at the box office. It’s a refreshing return to a simpler definition of art, which could be done for its own sake and everyone’s enjoyment rather than to try to prove intellectual bona fides.

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" (2007) Photo: Zombie Joe's Underground

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” (2007) Photo: Zombie Joe’s Underground

Though Witch Ball is the only ZJU show I’ve seen to date, looking at the roster of shows past, present, and future reminds me of Charles Ludlam’s iconic Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which played in – literally – an underground space in New York’s Sheridan Square, and was a staple of the city’s theatre scene for decades. Eschewing naturalistic acting and realistic sets, the Ridiculous was known for going way over the top, often trying to shock and disturb the audience. Seeing the photo of ZJU’s Urban Death makes me think that show might well have been a hit in Ludlam’s playhouse.

The cast of the recent "Bedlam Explosivo Variey Hour" Photo: Sebastian Munoz

The cast of the recent “Bedlam Explosivo Variey Hour” Photo: Sebastian Munoz

As someone who first saw Night of the Living Dead in an… um… altered state (and has consequently never really recovered), I don’t know whether I can take Urban Death – those zombies look awfully real – but I know I’ll be lured back to Zombie Joe’s at some point before too long.

By the way, though it’s called Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, it’s actually on street level. Bummer. I was really looking forward to having to descend into a catacomb…

Witch Ball
Written by Zombie Joe
Directed by Roger K. Weiss and Nancy Woods 

Saturdays through May 9

Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group
4850 Lankershim Boulevard
North Hollywood, CA 91601

Tickets: 818-202-4120 or http://zombiejoes.tix.com/

Websites: http://zombiejoes.com/ and http://www.urbandeath.com/


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