In the darkness, we hear a tapestry of sounds: the indistinct chatter of children, the slamming of locker doors, the scuffing of sneakers on linoleum tile. It’s a cacophony immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever spent time in the halls of an American public school. As the lights come up we see a lone boy standing in the corner of the stage, his Star Wars backpack turned to the audience. A few long seconds linger. Finally, the school bell rings. The boy turns around to reveal a shotgun cradled in his arms. With a terrified but determined look in his eye, he cocks it.
As the lights fade to black, there is applause. But it’s different. It’s timid. It’s not the same as the gleefully subversive hooting and hollering that we offered up a few vignettes ago after one of the gross-out gags. It’s not the cringing, the screaming, or the nervous laughter elicited by the straight-ahead horror scenes. It’s not even the awed gasps and wonder from one of what co-director Zombie Joe has called “Jana Wimer’s bitchin’ stage tricks”. This is the type of applause that follows one of those classic Urban Death vignettes that sucks all the air out of the room. If you’ve been to a show at the theater before, you’ve probably experienced it at least once. The type of applause that seems to carry with it an uncomfortable question: “Should we be applauding that?”
The tension between all of these different reactions is exactly where the latest iteration of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group’s flagship show makes its home.
Urban Death is a difficult show to discuss because Urban Death has never been just one thing. It is a show so versatile and eclectic that it’s composed entirely of outliers, with no cohesive center to lie outside of. It is defined by its differences. In its latest run, which sold out every performance (even after the addition of a three-weekend extension), this mutability feels like more of a mission statement than ever. Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group has built a beautiful world for themselves for over two decades by exploring territory what few other theater companies dare to explore. Urban Death, their flagship horror show in the surrealist postdramatic tradition of Antonin Artaud, has long served as their most popular vehicle for such explorations, and with good reason. As cliché as it sounds at this point, there is truly nothing else out there like Urban Death.
At some point while viewing the latest iteration of the show, a thought occurred to me. I’m not sure exactly when it happened. Maybe it was early in the show, after watching a beautifully wild-eyed woman in lingerie anally fist her suit-clad stage partner, culminating in a queasy Lady and the Tramp moment which saw the performers mutually partaking in the consumption of the mess dripping off of her hands. Or maybe it was when three naked men in bow ties (with tucks that would make RuPaul proud) silently and smugly toasted an unidentified occasion for celebration with martini glasses. Or hell, maybe it was around the time I watched an impatient row of women take turns pulling bloody feminine products from under their skirts and dropping them in a community bucket, to the tune of Sunforest’s “Lighthouse Keeper”. Whenever it was, at some point in the show I came to a realization: Urban Death is not—strictly speaking—a “horror” show. Except for all the times that it is.
This—along with the brilliant sound design, lighting, and keen directorial vision of Zombie Joe and Jana Wimer, of course—is one of Urban Death’s most powerful secret weapons: whatever genre it chooses to take you through, it will take you through it with more guts, skill, and innovation than most any show you could ever hope to see.
Of course, all of it would be for naught without the efforts of the amazing Urban Death Ensemble, who shepherd us the whole way through. Iana Neville, Jetta Juriansz, and Elif Savas—in three completely separate scenes—manage to communicate heartbreakingly real, lived-in stories in a matter of seconds with nothing but the sheer vulnerability of their performances. Ian Heath and Shayne Eastin bring their inimitable physicality to every scene they perform, shifting and contorting their frames in a way that recontextualizes the human body as an art piece unto itself. Brandon Slezak, Patrick Beckstead, and James Sanger switch between surreal comedy and heartbreaking tragedy at a rate that would give any lesser performer whiplash. Every vocalization, movement, and breathtaking image that the cast offers us—from the ear-splitting scream of Dasha Kittredge to the ghoulishly silent smile of Michelle Danyn—sticks with the audience long past the curtain call, and each performer in this formidable cast deserves nothing but the highest praise. With all of that being said, I still haven’t even mentioned half of my favorite parts of the show.
What the latest iteration of Urban Death reminds us is that what Zombie Joe, Jana Wimer, and the ensemble have to offer us is not a product, but a process. It is an exploratory piece of art that will twist and rend its way into the crevices of the psyche that otherwise remain untouched, and it will use every emotion, genre, and technique in its tool belt—save for dialogue, of course—to do so. All it asks in return is that you come along with it.
To check out the other great offerings at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, and to be notified when Urban Death returns in the Tour of Terror this October, visit their website and follow them on Facebook and Twitter. Tickets for upcoming shows at ZJU, like the highly-anticipated Blood Alley 3 and all-new full-contact immersive show Santu Deliria, can be found here.