Zombie Joe's Underground, North Hollywood, CA
Sensual. Haunting. Unnerving. Sardonic. Jarring. Raw. Brutal. Relentless.
These words and more describe Blood Alley 3, the latest theatrical installment at Zombie Joe's Underground Theater Group. A gripping and darkly hedonistic look at the depravity that has haunted a uniquely twisted street alley over the course of a century, this show assimilates the traditions of Grand Guignol, Theatre of Cruelty, and Butoh to produce a vivid display of horror etched in human degeneracy. With wrenching performances from an intensely committed and utterly uninhibited cast and a warped and dissonant soundtrack performed live in concert with the various vignettes, Blood Alley 3 takes theater-goers through a one-hour journey of sex, murder, vice, and debauchery. And it doesn't let go until guests are thoroughly shaken through a myriad of emotions and left to stagger out of the theater, unsure of exactly what they just witnessed.
Similar to Urban Death, Zombie Joe's latest offering navigates a series of vignettes with no linear plot or self-building storyline. Unlike Urban Death, there is a greater overarching linkage among all the scenes. As mentioned above, the concept revolves around the showcase of various events that have happened in or around the street alley setting of this haunted play over the course of many eras. Although the scenes often seem unrelated, there are some that call back to previous episodes or offer continuations of earlier chapters. In addition, a discordant live soundtrack enhances the sensations of dread and disgust and chills and lechery. Solely anchored by the immensely talented Kevin Van Cott, this mix of drums, guitar, and keyboard (played simultaneously!) creates a living, breathing pall across the black box theater, heightening moods and controlling the pulse of the room.
The perverted edginess, rough candor, and literal exposure displayed in Blood Alley 3 also make Urban Death seem like a tame, family-friendly artistic piece in comparison. Although the show officially lists its audience restrictions as being for ages 16 and up, this really should be a performance for adults only--unless one feels like answering a lot of awkward questions from his or her child on the ride home. There is bountiful nudity--including full display of all genitalia by both male and female actors--plus multiple scenes of violence, sex, and even rape. The episodic nature of the show also leaves many of these chapters open to interpretation. The rapid pacing means that the audience often doesn't have time to recover from one vignette before being psychologically punched in the gut with another.
In typical Zombie Joe fashion, the shocks begin right from the start--in fact, before the start, to be technical. As guests filter into the almost uncomfortably intimate theater space, they are greeted a fully nude, completely hairless man (played by the scene-stealing Patrick Beckstead, who absolutely owned multiple scenes in which he appeared), hands bound to a hook above his head and mouth ball-gagged, wearing red fishnet stockings partially pulled down his hips, and a chain dangling conspicuously over his most noticeably exposed crotch. He stands there in frightful apprehension, pleading with his eyes to anyone willing to meet his gaze while filing in and getting seated.
Most of the audience faces this prisoner of kink while sitting on chairs placed on risers on the opposite side of the room, but about a dozen chairs also line the same wall as the "greeter," with the most special "V.I.P." spots located right next to the gentleman. On this particular night, those seats were occupied by none other than our own friends from Theme Park Adventure, Rick and Johanna. The visual image of a most blatantly uncomfortable Rick West trying to sit as naturally as he could muster will be one that is forever etched into my memory. The fact that Blood Alley 3 could conjure such a reaction from a man who has gone through hundreds of haunted houses utterly unfazed speaks to the visceral power of this production.
[some spoilers follow]
Through the course of the hour-long performance, a variety of vignettes provide a shocking, sometimes titillating, sporadically cringe-inducing, and occasionally surprisingly humorous experience. Writhing orgies, callous oral sex, awkward auto-erotic asphyxiation, dirty, passionate love-making. An angel savaged by demons and left a naked and bloody mess, a creepy cascade of ghostly whispers in the dark, a calculated and pacing priest seeking exorcism, two bondage-clad humans on leashes being walked by their owners, a vampire seducing and violently feasting. A forlorn human auction, a brutal sexual assault, a lascivious example of drug use. These are just a few of the 56 scenes that form the ties of the track of this production.
There is also a certain humorous interplay across the fourth wall at times through the show. When the lights dim, a security guard emerges, as though making the night rounds at a mall. The audience giggles with awkward laughter as he stumbles upon our mystery bound and gagged victim, but then it turns out that this is Van Cott settling into his position at the corner to play the live score. And at a couple of occasions, he actually interrupts his own music to engage in ironic interludes with the cast or the audience. Certain other scenes, including a few at a balcony window at an opposite, feature a silliness that contrasts with the rest of the show, offering a small measure relief from the heaviness of most of the play. But even the comedy has a dark side, with streaks of caustic sarcasm at times.
Ultimately, Blood Alley 3 offers a powerful and emotional journey for its viewers. It challenges and upsets the audience, but it shows insight into the cruelty and horror and monstrosity of the human condition. It's worth noting that while a similar (and relatively tamer) show like Urban Death still carries elements of the supernatural, almost nothing in Blood Alley 3 is of the phantom or metaphysical ilk. Instead, this alley is plagued by the ghosts of human action... human indecencies and atrocities and malevolence. There is a certain commentary of what corrupts men and women, thrust straight and hard into the beholders that form the crowd.
This show is certainly not for everyone. It is very mature, and it is unfiltered and coarse. But who approach with a very open mind and an acceptance of impending consternation will find an unforgettable and eerily beautiful collection of stories unfold before them, performed by an incredible, almost magically synchronized cast that flawlessly transitions from scene to scene in tight spaces, absent light, and overflowing commitment. Patrick Beckstead, Jason Britt, Nicole A. Craig, Michelle Danyn, Shayne Eastin, Shannon Garland, Juan Carlos Gough, Amanda McKenna, Elif Savas, Brandon Slezak, Kevin Van Cott, Matthew Vorce, and Yael Wallace deserve high praise for their unadulterated energy and down and dirty fervor. Their individual various characters symbolically and physically merge into a synergy of pride, passion, shame, lust, resentment, degradation, and aggression. They turn the performance into a living organism of its own.
Blood Alley 3 runs for one more weekend, next Friday and Saturday, June 9 and 10 at 8:30pm. Tickets are available at Zombie Joe's web site, but this is not the only performance on hand this month. Additional plays and even a full-contact immersive haunt called Santu Deliria are also playing this month, and there are always performances at Zombie Joe's Underground throughout the year. And at $15 a ticket, it's an inexpensive and cozy way of patronizing the theater arts. So if you enjoy this type of event or are a haunt fan looking for a similar but unique type of experience, check out ZJU! Carry open expectations, and I don't think you'll regret it.
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.