The lights come on. At Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater, they always do…eventually. A body, draped in a long black sheet, hangs out of the odd window situated high on the side wall of the beloved theater. From somewhere out of sight, we hear an ever-growing chorus of mumbling strangers. They seem to be enjoying themselves. An office Christmas party, perhaps? But we weren’t invited. No, we’re here, with this…thing. Blood Alley
Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater in North Hollywood has been serving up avant-garde, yet accessible, horror theater for over two decades, and their experience shows. Blood Alley: Christmas is something of a series-within-a-series, a holiday-themed variation on their unique Blood Alley concept. The technical format is nearly identical to that of their flagship production, Urban Death. The lights go off, the lights come on, we see something disturbing, sad, funny, or gross, and almost immediately we are once again plunged into darkness. There is minimal dialogue, and we are treated to somewhere between 30 and 50 vignettes (not to mention a drum solo or two) in the hour-long performance. Zombie and his team have been honing the format for well over a decade now, and the laser-like precision with which they execute their ideas is equally confounding and inspiring. One imagines that whatever chaos one sees onstage, it must be nothing compared to what’s happening behind the curtain.
Whereas Urban Death explores an alternate dimension full of surreal horrors, Blood Alley seems more focused on the ugliness of modern reality. Unlike Urban Death’s matte black void, Blood Alley’s minimalist brick-wall background tethers each scene to a place, if not a time. The number of themes and subjects explored is nearly endless – from consumerism, to class struggle, to suicide, to sexual assault, and all other manner of human evil and sadness. Though Blood Alley is always a variety show of sorts, sex is the predominant flavor of this season’s offering, with more full-frontal nudity and unironic eroticism than seen at ZJU in quite some time.
Of course, there’s also the Christmas setting, which is always present, but never quite used as expected. Rarely do characters get what they want for Christmas, and those that do live to regret it. And, for better or worse, we get a glimpse of what Santa does with his free time.
Blood Alley Christmas features a large cast of both ZJU favorites as well as new faces. Elif Savas, who also co-directed this production, uses her expressive, unforgettable face to morph into an impressive variety of characters. The long-haired Jason Britt (I Want to Be! Benjamin Franklin) is tasked with some of the more brutal material, in which his dark presence is felt immediately. Brandon Slezak shines throughout, most notably in the pre-show “entertainment,” which is always a highlight at ZJU – this time around, all cleverness is thrown out the window to hilarious, genuinely shocking effect. This writer’s favorite recent discovery at ZJU is Warren Hall, whose slinky, twitchy, physical genius has been a joy to watch over the last few iterations of Urban Death and Blood Alley. Newcomer Steve Alloway also deserves praise for silencing a rowdy crowd with an intimate, melancholy scene that features a surprisingly touching rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Another highlight of this Blood Alley: Christmas is the music of Kevin Van Cott who, from the throne of his drum set, also plays a police officer assigned to the world’s worst beat. The dissonant noise-rock score adds such a layer of excitement to the show, one wishes Van Cott would stick around for every production at ZJU.
The notion of this menacing music played by a man in a cop uniform encapsulates everything Blood Alley is about – it’s confrontational, decidedly punk theater. The evils of society lurk all around us, but once every winter, Zombie Joe invites them in from the cold. If you’ve never seen a Zombie Joe show before, Blood Alley: Christmas is a great place to start. But be warned, this one might just get you placed on the naughty list.