This is a review of Cemetery of Tortured Souls, now playing at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater in North Hollywood. This review contains minor spoilers. Tortured Souls Tortured Souls Tortured Souls Tortured Souls Tortured Souls Tortured Souls Tortured Souls
Eyes closed, I place my hands on the shoulders of the person in front of me and shuffle in the front door of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater (ZJU). Zombie reminds us that when it comes to surprises, peeking is a cardinal sin. I resist the temptation. As instructed, I count down from ten to zero, and open my eyes. Nothing is revealed. I’m standing in the darkness, perceiving only the sweet smell of incense.
Soon, I hear a long and labored intake of breath, a strange death rattle in reverse, surrounding me on all sides. A weak orange light reveals a female body, laid on an altar in front of me, lurching slowly to life. She’s not alone. A dozen corpses reanimate around me and whisper their secrets. They trust me, because I am one of them.
Although Cemetery of Tortured Souls would serve as a fitting title for just about any show at ZJU, this particular graveyard is populated by the forgotten dreamers of Depression-era Hollywood. Set to a live avant-jazz score by Kevin Van Cott, the audience traverses a netherworld of young actors and actresses desperate for any shred of recognition. Even in death, fame remains both a currency and a drug.
The show’s narrative is abstract and comes to us in small pieces, playing out like a bad trip. Loss of innocence is a central theme, and as we pull back curtain after curtain, we see that all entertainment is a kind of pornography. During our short visit, we cannot personally meet every lost soul – only the ones who want to meet us. Invariably, we feel sympathy for these doomed dreamers. The industry that chewed them up and put them in the ground still exists today, and the cycle of abuse and exploitation has hardly slowed.
Cemetery of Tortured Souls is the latest in a string of short and increasingly immersive pieces which includes works like last year’s Monsters Come Out at Night, and recent smash hit Dark Dark Ride Ride. Every inch of the ZJU theater is cleverly utilized, and all possible measures are taken to create a disorienting, dreamlike space. The theater’s lobby has just about become a second stage, now with its own basic lighting tech – one imagines it may soon be stripped and painted black.
This show in particular takes interesting steps in exploring the audience’s role and point of view. Sometimes we are addressed as a single entity – as a ghostly observer, or as a huddled mass of film extras. Other times, we are spoken to as individuals, keepers of the validation that these cursed performers so endlessly crave. The level of audience interaction is also considerably higher than ZJU’s recent immersive shows, including a few small moments that may cause more timid attendees to blush. It is an intimate show that involves a great deal of touch and requires some quick movement that may be difficult for some audience members (though surely this can be accommodated, just mention it up front!).
Like ZJU’s flagship shows Urban Death and Blood Alley, the main strength of Cemetery of Tortured Souls is its variety. It’s a whirlwind tour that evokes a wide range of emotions, and no feeling is allowed to linger. It all feels very musical, with a slow introduction, a swinging, high-energy chorus, and a show-stopping high note. The show’s dialogue – like a great lyric – works best when it is at its most simple. “I’m dying” becomes a memorable and haunting refrain.
The performances are excellent as usual, with co-director Elif Savas leading the most disturbing and exciting scene. I was party to an intense, close-up performance from David Dickens that teased at a much larger world, one of the more memorable moments of the night.
With Cemetery of Tortured Souls, ZJU continues to develop its own brand of immersive theater, with a wide array of creative interactions. It is thrilling to see Zombie and company continue their wild experimentation, developing what works and abandoning what doesn’t. Whereas ZJU’s other recent shows have felt satisfying and complete at 20-or-so minutes, Cemetery of Tortured Souls leaves us wanting more. Zombie’s immersive experiments are getting stronger, and likely heading toward something truly spectacular. On that road, Cemetery of Tortured Souls is a vibrant and entertaining step forward.
Tickets for Cemetery of Tortured Souls, playing for one more weekend, are available here. For more information, check out Zombie Joe’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For more upcoming events, subscribe to our Events Guide.