The following is a review for Blood Alley 3, the latest horror show from Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group in North Hollywood. As the play is still running for two more weekends (6/2-6/3 and 6/9-6/10), there is little-to-no “spoiler” content. A link to tickets can be found at the bottom of the page.
In 1977, geographer Yi-Fu Tuan cemented a legacy for himself when he proposed new definitions for two major keywords within his discipline: “space” and “place”. A “space”, Tuan argued, is simply a set of geographical coordinates; a discrete patch of dirt or concrete defined by some abstract border or another. A “place”, on the other hand, is defined by what happens within those borders. Places are given form by the experiences, interactions, and aspirations of the people within them. By this deeply humanistic token, a patch of land is only just that until it is imbued with meaning by a human connection.
Blood Alley 3, the latest horror show from Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, extends Tuan’s proposition a touch further by transporting the audience to a place not defined by human connection, but by human atrocity. Trapped for just over an hour within the confines of a dark, forgotten alley, audience members must bear witness to an exhausting barrage of emotional, sexual, and physical traumas imprinted onto the space over centuries. For their third excursion into this nightmare world, co-conspirators Zombie Joe and Elif Savas have come up with what is perhaps their darkest, most punishing piece yet
“We wanted to create a show that goes almost to the point of abusing the audience,” says Savas of the show’s genesis. In Blood Alley 3, that goal has been delivered on in spades. Horror fans in the audience will find very little of the typical genre fare they know and love here. Creatures, ghosts, and grand guignol-style stage tricks are largely shelved in favor of candid (if at times surreal) depictions of rape, murder, battery, and abuse of power in all of its forms. “What people do to each other in real life is scarier than any movie. That’s why in Blood Alley we put a human face to the ‘monsters’. In real life, the person doing the raping is not a monster, he’s completely human. That, to me is, is the sadness of life. That is what I wanted to bring to the show. It’s not ‘horror’ in quotes, there is a safety to that that isn’t here.”
This sadness and lack of safety that Savas outlines are felt not just in the raw content of the individual scenes, but in the beautiful formal execution through which they are brought to life. Gone are the discrete, self-contained vignettes that define Urban Death. In their place, we are given a collection of moments that lack punchlines, exposition, or sometimes even narrative, set to a never-ending score that does not break to cue us for applause, or even let us know when a piece has ended. The play ceaselessly and unapologetically moves forward; flowing into itself with the spatial and temporal fluidity of a nightmare. Pieces frequently begin and end in media res. Humor is scattered thoughout the show only scantly, and often appears only in the most surreally unrecognizable ways. Put simply, Blood Alley 3 is everything but a “crowd pleaser”, and I mean that as the highest compliment.
“The audience seemed a little damaged afterward; a little in their heads,” observed Zombie Joe after opening weekend. “It’s not like the cheering and rowdiness you see in Urban Death.” One can hardly blame the audience for such a reaction. The confounding, confronting vignettes that occasionally sucked the air out of the room in previous shows are the dominant mode of Blood Alley 3, leaving an often-dumbfounded crowd that claps timidly, if ever. Savas continues, “I like to trust our audience. They can go deeper than they think. They are smarter than they think. They might not be cheering afterward, but when you give this to them, maybe they’re thinking about the show longer.”
Make no mistake though, there is still an immaculate beauty to Blood Alley’s brutality. It is upsetting, provocative, and above all moving, in ways that could never be achieved without the extreme measures it takes to get there. Blood Alley 3 is not torture porn, nor is it an exploitation piece. When bodies are stripped naked, there is nothing sexy about it. It is an earnest, artistic exploration of a world defined by horror, trauma, and tragedy.
Of course, should the journey into darkness ever seem too daunting, the audience can take comfort in knowing that we are being led by the capable hands of an exceptional cast and crew. With Kevin Van Cott’s pounding, distorted score serving as our main character, we are continuously pushed deeper and deeper into the alley’s collective place memory, without so much as a second to catch our breath. These memories are then corporealized by the remarkably fearless Blood Alley Ensemble, each bringing their own energy, emotional strength, and above all physicality to the tragic proceedings. As Elif Savas aptly notes, “We are extremely fortunate to have found a cast that can be so physical and so emotional at the same time.”
The raw, animalistic physicality of the cast is perhaps the show’s most remarkable feat. The influence of Butoh and modern movement-based performance art drive Blood Alley 3 in a marked way, morphing the bodies of the ensemble into a nearly indistinguishable collective of emotionally evocative objects. One can still see the individual within the collective, of course: the virile, masculine energy of Matthew Vorce, Brandon Slezak, and newcomer Juan Carlos Gough; the deceptively-disarming feminine graces of Michelle Danyn and Nicole Craig; the savage ferocity of Elif Savas and Shayne Eastin; the heartrending vulnerability of Patrick Beckstead and Shannon Garland; the psychosexual mischievousness of Yael Wallace; the chilling stoicism of Jason Britt; each performer shines in accordance with their individual strengths. However, the true magic trick is the ensemble’s ability to take all of these disparate energies and seamlessly blend them into a collective consciousness, shared by 12 bodies.
Blood Alley 3 is not for everyone. It is intense, brutally cruel, and consistently shuns triumph or catharsis. It is also beautiful, primal, vital, and well worth the ticket price and the hour-long runtime—even if you might need to clear your schedule for a strong drink or meditation session afterward.
“Blood Alley 3” runs Friday and Saturday nights at 8:30 for two more weekends at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater in North Hollywood, California. Blood Alley 3 is the kick-off show in ZJU’s Fringe Month, which will contain shows like Rose Bochner’s “Andronicus! Titus with Ten Clowns”, Brandon Slezak’s “I Want to Be! Benjamin Franklin”, a limited afternoon run of Urban Death composer Christopher Reiner’s “End Up Here”, and more. June 2nd is also the kickoff of the mysterious new full-contact immersive “Santu Deliria“, which runs at 11 and 11:30 on Friday and Saturday nights following Blood Alley 3. Tickets for ALL of these exciting new shows are available online here.