Manicomio: A Manicure…? A fancy Italian Combover (that makes the combover cool again before combovers were ever cool?)—A snazzy combination Manicure/Combover using one’s nail clippings to cover the offending bare scalp, like some drag queen’s all too cuteicle rhinestone skullcap?
I enter the black box theatre that is Zombie Joe’s Underground to a packed house. Not only is the audience overflowing, but the stage is vibrantly alive with zombie-like circus performers, speaking, miming, muttering, mimicking various postures and mannerisms, playing with the men and women in the audience in the black, somewhat void-like abyss of the rectangular patch of floor that surrounds itself within the fortress of our seats. The feel of this pre-show-fore-show vacillates betwixt that of a 60’s cocktail party, Fellini Film and sleepover hosted by Marcel Marceau. Actors dress in pyjamas, black circus make-up, tutus and tank tops. The cast of tonight’s “experience” as I have been told to call it, is comprised of Jared Adams, Charlotte Bjornbak, Jahel Corban Caldera, Ramona Creel, Joaquin De La Rua, Samm Hill, Tyler Koster, Leif La Duke, Jackie Lestra, Kevin Van Cott, R. Benjamin Warran, Jessica Weiner and Anne Westcott, directed by Sebastian Munoz. I have very little idea as to who’s who, (oh, except Sebastian—a way coolest of cool cats!)
Just as I am attempting to figure the above out, two synthesized keyboard blasts sound from the tech booth above the stage nearly reminding me of the eerie blindfolded organ serenade in “Eyes Wide Shut”. Hauntingly ritualistic, this sound prompts all actors to stop whatever they are doing and freeze as the theatre, in kind, renders itself cryptically silent. (My, my…we the audience members certainly have a lot to talk about don’t we? Lively bunch ey…?)
Aside from an emphatic undercurrent of 1970s era Muzak (Montovani perhaps?) piped through the pre-show speakers in a continuous loop, I have no idea what is going on. It is, however, eerie, foreboding, dirty-antiseptic, yet light (melodically speaking anyway) in the most avant-garde, anti-establishment of fashions and I like it!
Just what kind of statement will this piece make, I wonder? I am fixedly anticipating an existence-rending, tearing down of all life’s superficial appearances, exposing the customarily concealed, bruised and bloody, steel line of tense reality underneath. Will my expectations be mistaken, satisfied or somewhere in between. Just what is this—what is it?!?!
Suddenly and without warning, one of our cheeky, more bombastic mimes (contradiction in terms?) steals a female audience member’s boot. “Get his hat! Get his hat!!!” instructs a giddy, yet rather Morticia Addamsish actress, milling around amidst the seats of the red-handed wrongdoer to our now cold-footed crime victim.
The lights begin to dim to complete blackout as the large sliding warehouseish door to Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre glides shut and I can’t help but feel as though I am in a carnival funhouse: 1940s-factory-style.
Just as quickly as the lights darken do they come up, spotlight on one of our pyjama-clad players mounted high atop a rehearsal block, cast of minions surrounding him campfire style. “Fact!” he will exclaim, then go on to recite a series of harrowingly interesting odd truisms: one about a town in Roanoke Virginia that suddenly depopulated with no trace of any foul play, mass exodus or any remnants of the original residents’ bodies—whoa!!! “We still haven’t figured out what happened to that plane.”…and something about a man with no prior record of physical violence seeing a word for the first time online in 2008, boarding a cross country bus and doing something unspeakable to one of its passengers. But I have a hard time hearing what he did, let alone whatever the word is, causing me to think I am suddenly going deaf or said actor, for a split sentence, forgot everything he ever learned in college voice class thusly not prrrrrojecting from the diaphragm whilst pronouncing it trippingly on the tongue!”
Regardless, I enjoy his monologue and find it and the gist of whatever I can hear of it, positively fascinating, almost like a surrealist version of Van Halen’s “Right Now” (both the song and video): one of my favorite sets of Van Halen contemplations: profound and synchronistically sound, haunting simultaneously all right now!!!
The lights eventually dim on “The Facts” and come up on two sets of Latin Lovers inhabiting two newly raised spaces amidst the audience on either side of the theatre. (How’d they get up there so fast? Geez!) One of the male lovers speaks (not allowing any of the other three aroused, fondling and fondled to get a word in edgewise!—Oh the nerve!—Then again, all the more liberty of them to use their tongues for uh…other things… Oh my God, I did NOT just say that! So…okay, I’ll stop now—REALLY—I’ll stop! So bad…) Anyway, it’s all kind of a moot point because, I have no idea what he is saying, as he speaks his fancy Spanish; but it is cool and I very much enjoy the image of the intensely focused spotlight on each set of lovers leaving the rest of the cast in the virginal valley of dark stars in the dell that is the deck below, staring up at the glowing lovers in all their beatific sunny repose…
The entire vibe of this piece so far reminds me of this film I once saw wherein a guy did this monologue on the tracks of an old abandoned subway station with only a mere theatrical house light or ol’ skool overhead light illuminating his artistry—so awesome!
Eventually, and something that reminds me of absolutely NOTHING having to do with the above, a guy in a pig costume alights the stage playing a snare drum—I mean, I think it is a pig but mayhap he is a mouse?—or a bear?—Yeah…definitely a bear. Wait no. An alleged monkey or no…no! A spider, yeah definitely a spider—bereft of 4 of its legs! The drum however is an actual drum—not a tuba, zither of kazoo—no question regarding its identity!
The drum is struck militarily with two of his two forelegs as he leads his combatant cast members around in circular formation. Our monologuist for the moment alights a black box and begins uttering sentences of interest both harrowing and hopeful, slices of life, no doubt, from her past—or future perhaps depending on what universal plane of existence she currently inhabits (but I’m guessing these are mostly from her past). Betwixt sentences, her cast mates chant “April 4th!” (The date on which we are witnessing this event: April 4th 2014.) But I am guessing all these things that happened to our performer occurred on April 4th 1978 and she probably wasn’t even born by April 4th 1978 so that’s really saying something!
She reminisces being kissed in the rain, of losing a loved one—her mother perhaps? [You were supposed to live forever, and now I’ve got to watch you wither away in a hospital bed…on life support!], of loves gone by [You kissed me and your mouth tasted like toothpaste.] Wonderful sense-memories: Mortifying and mirthful, distressing and delightful, tormented and ticklish; the likes of mortal magnificence, hot and cold terrifically terrestrial tales all being told…
A “little girl”—the actress in the tutu–appears nearly magically in another elevated lit portion of the black box just under the sound booth, hugging a blonde, tousle-haired doll, “Macy”—her greatest friend in the world it would seem, particularly at the expense of all flesh and blood, non-plastic varieties . It is evident that her rubber-headed companion intends to stay that way as Macy tells the actress all manner of horrible things about her so-called new found friends and their less than honest intentions, leaving her trembling in all her dysfunctional child-hooded paranoia.
This is where the “experience” gets exceedingly dark. The lights dim completely as all actors fall in heaps on top of one another moaning and groaning like a gridlocked version of Dante’s Inferno/freeway traffic jam of free-floating bodies, better yet—a hell bound orgy constrained in cloth the likes of which the still costumed actors cannot break free to complete the ritual: The most sensual, yet discouraged live haunted house you’ve ever taken a walk-thru.
A dude separates from the heap, screams, groans and moans eventually stripping himself down to his underwear. (Though I think I expected these to go too, in part because…well, we are at Zombie Joe’s.) [I can feel them inside me, crawling all around me.]—Apparently he is being invaded by body-snatching worms who are not even paying rent to reside amidst his insides. He then, as further advertisement(?) bellows, “Ask about it…ask about it…ask about it!” all too many times but the only thing I want to ask is “Okay, when will this scene just be over already?” It is in this instance that I being to lose interest in this heretofore, potentially compelling piece.
A woman lit in another raised area of the theatre begins screaming in Swedish (or possibly Danish?) interspliced with vague half phrases in English. After that’s gone on far too long, a guy starts feeling up this rather automatonish girl whilst kissing her and removing both his and her shirts. Her name’s Lisa by the way (though it hardly matters as there’s really no story here for her to protagonize) and just as weakly and robotically as she has let him fondle her up, she will mechanically push him away, causing him to extract a guitar. I giggle as the ostensibly jilted lover wields the handle like a frustrated phallus as he strums away waxing more and more cantankerous the longer he plucks, twangs and croons. Lisa has vanished from sight… I’m guessing she didn’t like his song.
Another guy imitates masturbation as he speaks in snippets regarding some girl with whom he used to fool around in his closet, then something about peanut butter and crackers and grape soda but it is all too incoherent and vague for my taste.
Bereft of any compelling imagery, complete sentences or whole and coherent thoughts, the stories I felt I could have latched on to in the beginning of this “experience” have now been reduced to a disjointed parade of rambling, unarrestingly imaged snippets that don’t seem to connect to anything or each other. In my review notes I have written, “Too weird without reference”—“incomplete”—“mere posturing”—“nothing to follow”.
Later, I will invariably liken the second half of this “experience” to driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas as the radio station to which you were so enthusiastically tuned at the beginning of your journey fades farther and farther away rendering heretofore complete sentences abbreviated and formerly coherently linked words dismembered as songs hiss to static. In other words, the beginning of this piece: Los Angeles. The middle to end: the desolate Mojave.
“Manicomio” I will come to deduce, has nothing to do with manicures, combovers, or, pertaining to the second part of the piece, comas. Its translation instead refers to the word “insane asylum”. Though much prettier-sounding in its native tongue, it is still a little vague and at the same time, over the top for me. Having been written by the actors themselves, from what I understand, most of these performance artists cannot be older than thirty five. So…um…what um…insane asylum has been part of their relatively new lives thus far…?
Don’t get me wrong. The acting is sound and the concept of this “experience” compelling and filled with potential. But what I wanted to see, particularly in the second half, was a steel line of tension linking all actors, stories and arresting imagery. The first portion of the piece possessed the beginnings of such tension and detail but the second cascaded into vagueness. What was the common thread of discomfort? : Disconcerting Chronicles of childhood?, Tales of Terrror from teenagedome?, Our Internet’s Insidious Self-Imprisonment?, Coming up in a world as the first generation whose daily life has not been affected in some way by the micro-chip or Wi-Fi?, The world according to the Millennial Generation, A glitch in our Matrix? What?!!?
(Yes! I want stories!—Or at the very least, arresting concepts, sentences or even imagery the likes of which fueled my fire within the context of the very first half of this experience!)
As my old Groundlings teacher, the venerable and esteemed Chase Winton used to bellow at the top of her lungs whenever a scene wasn’t going anywhere, “Get Specific!”
“Be our eyes! What are you seeing…experiencing. What are the details? What is your world?” she’d continue. And I would watch as the true colors, depth breadth and humor of the scene would magically come to life right before my very eyes or within the context of what I was doing. The same holds true for drama, surrealism and all things experimental: Be our eyes, weave your tales, show us your world, give us something we’ve never seen before in all manner of details and uniqueness the likes of which only you can deliver. And I know this group of actors can. I think this “experience” has a lot of potential and I would like to see the work continue.
Manicomio runs through May 23rd every Friday at 8:30 pm at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601
Reservations: (818) 202-4120
Advance Tickets: www.ZombieJoes.Tix.com