Bedlam Explosivo starts with a Pre-opening piece. Jennifer Chun provides a moving cello piece. While she plays other Players go through odd, and funny mix of pre-show rituals, and surreal weirdness. In the balcony window for instance, a silent man seems hypnotized by the goings on. He responds most to music, but movement and speech stir him as well. His mannerisms seem almost alien, similar to that of the fey, wandering upon humans at play. He seeks to seduce the humans, but is himself seduced much more by them.
The show begins with blackness, a voice booms, warning us we are in for quite a show. As the lights rise we are greeted with an opening musical number, both instrumental, and lyrical with the entire cast coming on stage. As each member enters they take up the song, and dance. This being a Cabaret there is much dance involved.
This is Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, one shouldn’t expect a straight Cabaret, it’s full of their unique humour, and macabre mentality. The genre is all the more improved for this ZJU take on Cabaret.
Throughout the show there are several call backs, in skit, gags, and music. This is either the third or fourth show I’ve seen at ZJU since early winter that has used live instrumentals (aside from drum and piano). Guitar, woodwind, cello, in the past a violin. The musicians aren’t separate from the show, they are an integral part, they are characters, and they weave a thread through the shows they are in. In Bedlam Explosivo for instance, there is a French lilt to the music. The French lilt enhances the French atmosphere of many of the skits. Going back to French Cabaret, and the Diva status many of the performers are accused of having, an instrumentalist and a signer have it out mid performance. With a unique instrument, while another musicisian tries to remain professional.
There is of course magic, preformed by Scott Michael, proper comedic magic. The jokes are as important as the magic. This includes well timed call backs to a previous trick. Call backs in magic, and in Cabaret reward the audience for paying attention. Seeing a pattern, learning to predict it, this cycle rewards our pleasure centers. This draws the audience in, endears them to the performer.
Being a variety show, saying too much about each piece would give away everything. I can say each bit adds to the whole of Bedlam Explosivo. I was laughing from start to finish. The atmosphere Zombie Joe’s creates feels like an old time Cabaret. They bring it to life with their macabre sense, their strange sense of humour. Chair dancers who can’t operate their chairs, Monks who dance for the audience. Every piece builds upon the other. Each may be full of different jokes, and gags but on the whole they fit a nebulous theme. One that is hard to put your finger on, but a theme that is clearly at home at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre.
If we are lucky, this show will receive an extension. If we are very lucky, it will become a regular variety show, playing throughout the year, changing up the bits and players throughout. LA needs more Cabaret, it needs more variety. We need to be able to say “What can we do tonight?” “Oh I hear there is a variety show at Zombie Joe’s every week.”. Cabaret allows writers, directors and actors to maintain that creative element, push for new things. It gives the audience a rewarding experience. If any Theatre Troupe has the chops to keep a variety hour going, it’s Zombie Joe’s.
Bedlam Explozivo XXL Variety Hour runs Fridays at 11pm through May 8th.
For more information please visit www.zombiejoes.com
Miwa Yanagi captures the essence of a radio drama, through her set design, choice of props, and stage direction. To capture the ephemeral spirit of radio as a medium, Miwa coupled that spirit with the living art that is the Theatre. Combining two temporary mediums, to form a powerful motive energy for her story was pure brilliance.
Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape gives us a glimpse into the lives of the female prisoners of war who were pressed into DJing Zero Hour. The show begins by immersing you into the south pacific, or an approximation thereof. Old radios are brought out and placed around the Theater. These serve not only as a means of broadcasting the distorted audio to the audience, but as a tool to substitute the reality of the stage for our everyday lives. Throughout the show the hiss and crackle of old radio dials can be heard from these radios. The amplified and distorted voices of the actresses come though a little tinny, further suspending reality, and allowing the audience to dive into the story.
The story itself takes place in the past and present. In the past Daniel Yamada (Yohei Matsukado) is a US soldier with a keen ear. He can tell all the Roses apart, and has given nicknames to each. For this reasons he has been tasked with identifying each Rose at the end of the war, as part of an investigation into possible war crimes surrounding the demoralizing broadcast. As an aside to this investigation, Daniel is a fan of Zero Hour, and wants to meet both Orphan Annie, and the main Tokyo Rose.
In the present the war is over, and many years have passed. Daniel is an old, nearly blind man. He awaits the arrival of an old friend Toshiya Shiomi (Sogo Nishimura). Toshiya was the producer, and technician of Zero Hour. They met during Daniel’s investigation. Striking up a quick if at first uneasy friendship, they agree to play each other 100 games of chess. The present awaits Toshiya’s arrival to finish their decades long marathon of games in person.
The majority of the story takes place in the past. We are given a glimpse into how an entire society is influenced by war on an industrial scale. The Roses themselves are all prisoners of a sort. They are first or second generation Japanese immigrants. Either to Canada, the UK, the US etc… They were visiting relatives or sightseeing when the war broke out. Forced to work to survive, many took work in the steno pools, where they translated intercepted broadcasts into Japanese. Eventually the many Roses found their way to the broadcast studios of Zero hour.
The stage direction, and story itself help paint a picture of life under war. Life in a land and culture most of the world don’t readily experience. Everything from the sterile stage built to resemble old broadcast studios, to the robotic movements of the female characters paints a picture of a culture and daily life under stress. The mobile mechanical reconstruction of the set, strains at the need to bring order to the chaos around.
When an important broadcast from the emperor comes over the domestic radio, the girls turn on each other. They had been speaking English, and a few catch themselves, remembering this is a time and place for Japanese to be spoke, not English. Under Daniel’s interviews the Roses, and even Toshiya show the strain of having lived a life under pressure. They want desperately to speak, but their culture, and the authority they had been under stay their tongues. For a time. Eventually Daniel persuades each to open up, in the end, only Toshiya keeps a secret, one he takes with him through the end of the performance.
Daniel convincing the Roses to open up, shows a culture opening up. Modern Japan, while steeped in tradition is more open than it once was. Such changes are made slowly, and you can see these changes in the mannerisms of the Roses, and Toshiya. This speaks volumes to the stage direction, and acting skills of the entire cast. To show subtle physical changes, changes that mirror internal changes on the part of the characters, as well as a culture at large. Acting of this caliber takes great discipline.
A story about Tokyo Rose can’t be told without telling the injustice one of the Roses faced. In this story Jane Yoshiko Sugawa (Ami Kobayashi), plays the female lead. In a cast whose mannerisms and costume are designed to show sameness, Jane stands out. A different hair cut, subtle gestures that allow her to stick out. She is a sore thumb in the culture she is immersed. She retained her American citizenship throughout the war. She refused to give up her citizenship. She also became Orphan Annie, “hello my fellow orphans across the pacific”, being her famous introduction.
Jane’s story perhapse shows the tragedy of war like no other I’ve seen in some time. Just because the war is over, does not mean the lusts have ended. Daniel’s lust to find the Roses, which mirrors the lust of the soldiers who heard her broadcasts throughout the war. A lust for attention, every newspaper man wanted an exclusive with “The Tokyo Rose”, they didn’t care there could be, and were more than one. Finally Blood Lust. The public lusts to blame someone for all the ills suffered during the war. They need to blame someone for their lost loved ones, the forever maimed and scared. When the public has such blood lust, there step in politicians, and policy makers to capitalize on the frenzy. Jane, who had been loyal to the US throughout the war was brought up on treason charges, convicted, and stripped of her citizenship. The same citizenship she had fought to maintain throughout the entire war.
I have spoken of the acting, the set, and the stage direction. I would be remiss not to speak to the beautiful audio that brings Zero Hour to life. Yasutaka Kobayakawa makes sound a living character. The layers of music, distorted voices, static, all bring this radio drama to life. Yes, Zero Hour is a Play, but it is a play about a radio show, and staged in the vein of a Radio Drama. Yasutaka worked to bring sound to life. If it were not for the English captions on the back wall during Japanese speaking segments, it would be possible to listen to the entire performance, instead of watching it. As someone who grew up with radio dramas this was a treat. Yasutaka’s care in designing the sound elements was a treat to listen to. The sound design more than anything else in Zero Hour, helps suspend reality, transporting the audience to the south pacific, where they would be listening to Tokyo Rose broadcast her propaganda.
The key piece to Yasutaka’s sound masterpiece. Recreating Tokyo Rose’s broadcast. I said earlier that Toshiya has a secret. Well, that secret, he is the 6th Rose. Using sound editing he created a ghostly voice, one that haunted Daniel and other soldier alike. As if she were broadcasting from beyond the grave. This has an eerie quality, and it was beautifully done.
Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape is a beautifully complex piece. It uses economy of motion, stage, and sound to transport the audience to another time and place. It might be cliché, but it is a more simple time, a time so simple it is complex. With layer upon layer, each affecting the layers above and below it. Entire nations were at war, entire ways of life were at war. When the world goes to war, cultures are forever altered. Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape gives a brief glimpse into how one such culture responds and changes to the pressures of war.
For more information on upcoming works please visit redcat.org
A Christmas Carol at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre begins with a Steam Punk Chorus singing many the traditional carols of the season. To these seemingly straight forward renditions, ZJU ads a dash of winter spice to the mix, in the form of comedy. The Steam Punk Chorus adds this dash of comedy through their gestures, and emphasis on certain lines. Such as the men in the Chorus singing the line about all the men they haven’t kissed this year. There is even a bit of shiny distraction, with one member of the Chorus over using the tambourine, to the distraction of others.
The use of music plays a key role in this rendition of A Christmas Carol. Throughout the Play, at key moments, transitions, or scene changes classic carols fill the air. Not only does music fill the air, live violin music provided by Lara Lihiya strikes powerful emotional cords. Music is a powerful tool in storytelling; it can set the mood, provide the undercurrent of emotion for a scene, or draw the threads of the story together. While it’s a powerful tool, it needs to be used judiciously, its magic subtle. Denise Devin (director) wove the carols through the show beautifully. The music showing up, and fading out in just the right places. Speaking of fading in and out, the “curtain” used between scenes was brilliant. Aside from using the darkness of the black box theatre; the Steam Punk Chorus came out with dim spheres of light, acting as spirits singing to us, guiding us from scene to scene. The pitch black, with dim spheres and song added a magical quality to the transitions.
I mentioned earlier that the Steam Punk Chorus brought a dash of comedy to their carols. This dash of comedy continued throughout the entire show. A Christmas Carol is a powerful story, of hope and redemption. While powerful and moving, it can be a dry affair, Victorian London wasn’t known for its humour. Denise’s adaptation added just the right level of humour to elicit laughs from the audience, while still keeping the poignant power of Dickens’ story intact. From a very flamboyant Spirit of Christmas Present (Denise Devin), to Fred (AJ Sclafani) doing card tricks, from time to time. Humour ran throughout the show, while not distracting from the story. It allowed the audience to connect with the characters that much more, I feel. You can’t help but connect with someone when the make you laugh, put a smile on your face.
The acting was also on point. Mrs. Cratchit (Redetha Deason) personified a Victorian wife, loving dutiful, even though she has a strong will of her own. Redetha brought this to the surface quite nicely. You could feel the force of her presence tempered with her affections for Bob Cratchit (Jason Britt). Speaking of Bob, you felt his pain, and his determination to keep a stiff upper lip. Worse still, emotionally speaking, you could see that stiff upper lip quiver and crumble when the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come allows Scrooge (Sebastian Munoz) to look upon the Cratchit’s. Bob is devastated by the loss of Tiny Tim (Courtney Drumm), it’s etched on his face, his movement, and echoes in his voice.
Scenes with Tiny Tim are a joy to watch, Courtney brings life and vibrance to Tiny Tim. Tiny Tim is alwasye hopeful, and you can sense that though Courtney. The star of the show is of course Scrooge. Sebastian brings Scrooge to life, nailing down the transformation he undergoes through his journey. From miserly, through fearful, to hopeful and begging, eventually winding up a changed man. All without a makeup change. Sebastian brings about this change through posture, mannerisms, and a gradual change in his voice. He goes through such a wide array of emotional voice modulation, it’s powerful.
I should not be surprised, that Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre delivered a powerful performance. In a way I’m not, and I am. ZJU are masters of the macabre, and avante garde. They are so good at the edgy fringe of theatre that it’s easy to forget, they are also a proper playhouse, with talented writers, directors, and actors. I think this is a good thing in a way. One gets so used to the macabre, and strange, that when a classical work is put forward it’s that much more powerful, because they can consistently deliver powerful classical theatre. It’s a treat to be reminded how talented and versatile the folks at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group are.
A Christmas Carol (adapted and directed by Denise Devin) runs Saturdays and Sundays through December 28th in North Hollywood.
For more information please visit www.zombiejoes.com
All Photos Credit: Zombie Joe’s Underground.
GraveDigger is a series of vignettes linked together by the ominous specter that is the Grave Digger. The Grave Digger is a mysterious phantom which haunts each piece. For the most part Grave Digger is a silent observer, however occasionally he holds the noose, or the blunt instrument of death. The sad souls playing out their death scenes, or participating in the death scenes of others seem to regard Grave Digger little. Almost as if death itself is a constant companion on our journey throughout life.
As a collected body, pun intended, GraveDigger the Play shows slices of life, or rather death. The scenes range in their placement, from just before death, after death, or during the moment of death. Some even take on the appearance of a wake, or vigil held by those left behind.
The show opens, with a grim faced funeral attendant welcoming us, and inviting us to the wake, from there a ZJU cover of one of my favorite songs, and it was quite aptly chosen. “The Curse of the Hearse”, is all about what happens to you if you laugh as a hearse goes by. A little hint, it’s not called a curse because it tickles you. Well maybe it will tickle you, if shivers tickle your spine. This audio selection sets the tone for the evening. The chosen songs match the tone of each piece nicely. Theatre is more than just what you can see on stage. The right audio selection, from music to effects can draw you in; wrapping you in the death shroud of the reality you’re witnessing unfold before you.
If you’ve attended Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre before, you’ve no doubt come across Urban Death. Another Play composed of vignettes about death. In many ways GraveDigger is similar to Urban Death, however it is a separate experience unto its own. While Urban Death deals with the varying forms death in the modern urban landscape can take. The shock and awe aspects of death as it were. GraveDigger deals with the introspective side of death, the idea that death is always with us. GraveDigger gives more time to each piece. This allows you to invest in the characters more fully before showing you their fates. You can’t help by take in everything presented before you, the slower pace gives you a chance to recognize yourself in the characters more readily, or at least sympathize with them.
When we recognize ourselves in the characters on stage, or sympathize with them, we can’t help but feel their loss more closely. Do we identify with the witch being burned, or with those burning her. What do we think of the ancient cult chanting in the darkness, or the modern cultists as they come to terms with their final moments? Do we feel their trepidation and excitement?
In a piece composed of so many vignettes it would be easy to give away too much. Even naming each scene would give away vital information, information that you the audience should experience firsthand. If you know too much of the deaths going in, you’ll be occupied with preconceived notions. You’d be too occupied to take in the plethora of emotions placed in front of you.
I can give you a little hint, a short list of my favorite vignettes. This isn’t a complete list, and they were all my favorite, these stood out the most to my macabre personality. You might recognize that many of the pieces have two Grave Diggers, the phantom that stalks each piece, as well as the incarnation of real grave diggers from history. Séance is one of my favorite scenes in the entire piece, the idea of giving one’s self over to spirits from the outside. Jeffrey Dahmer, stands out as a great piece, the innocent bystanders letting him get away with his dark deeds. The Salem Witch Hunt, and Black Dahlia both brought a morbid smile to my face. The play ends with probably my favorite scene of the night, due to content, as well as the power of the acting. I won’t tell you which scene wraps up our journey along side death. That’s a treat you’ll have to show up to see for yourself.
GraveDigger (by Bea Egeto) runs Friday and Saturday through November 22nd.
For more info please visit www.zombiejoes.com
All Photos Credit: Zombie Joe