Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre is at it again, offering another collage of morbid curiosities in the form of Bea Egeto's new play Gravedigger. If you are familiar with Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre through their Halloween production, Urban Death: Tour of Terror, you will recognize a similar approach, consisting of short vignettes separated by blackouts, which yield a disturbing cumulative effect without being linked by a conventional plot. In fact, the only "plot" here is the plot of earth being exhumed by the titular Gravedigger, unearthing a series of historical atrocities as horrifying as any genre fiction.
There are some important differences from Urban Death: Tour of Terror. First, there is no "tour of terror" - this is a straight stage production, with no walk-through labyrinth. Second, this is a full-length play, and there are seats in the theatre. Third, there is actual dialogue. Fourth, and most important, there is a context to these vignettes, even though it may not be immediately apparent.
Whereas Urban Death: Tour of Terror presented unexplained episodes which lasted just long enough to leave you filling in the blanks with your own imagination, Gravedigger offers longer segments, whose "blanks" are not blank at all. The vignettes begin in media res, with no exposition (again, like Urban Death: Tour of Terror), but the implications become gradually apparent as the action unfolds. Though an occasional name is mentioned (Jim Jones, Dr. Mengele), Gravedigger functions a bit like a sordid quiz show, in that it requires the audience to come to realizations based on their own familiarity with history's more unsavory incidents.
Hollywood Gothique is not quite sure whether to be proud or not about scoring nearly 100% (correctly identifying Anne Frank, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Elizabeth Bathory, among others), but perhaps that is point, presenting these incidents as a shared cultural heritage, even if one we would rather ignore and deny.
A small, talented ensemble play multiple roles in stories ranging from the Plague Black and the Salem Witch trials to circuses, seances,* and Jonestown; all wear painted faces with a deathlike appearance, reminding us that these characters are, quite literally, already dead, their appearance on stage but a ghostly echo of their actual lives. The episodes are loosely linked by a shrouded figure of Death, first seen tending a grave, who appears and reappears at various junctures. In a clever conceit, Death stands in for the various murderers (Jack the Ripper, the Black Dahlia Killer) whose real faces remain unknown.
As unsavory as the subject matter sounds, Gravedigger is not without moments of pathos (Death resting a comforting hand on the shoulder of an agitated suicide) - and even humor. In one recurring bit, a pair of clowns inflict second-rate comedy and magic upon the audience, who gladly applaud when Death finally materialize with a blowgun to put them out of our misery.
Gravedigger's last historical episode is also its longest, the Jonestown Mass Suicide, which features an extensive debate among its characters upon the decision of whether or not to take their own lives. It's about as close to a catharsis as this kind of play will provide, pointing a lens upon tragic circumstances and leaving the audience to ponder the implications for any truth they can derive about the human condition.
Gravedigger is not exactly a pleasant experience (except for the dead clowns), but it is fascinating for those who can resist the impulse to turn away from the darker side of life.
Two more performances of Gravedigger will take place this weekend - on on Friday, November 21, at 11pm; and Saturday, November 22 at 8:30pm. Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre is located at 4850 Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood 91601. Tickets are $15. For reservations call: 818-202-4120, or visit ZombieJoes.Tix.com. Click here for the theatre's website.
- In a curious coincidence, Hollywood Gothique had just finished binge-viewing Showtime's Penny Dreadful series before attending Gravedigger. The television series portrays a seance in which a medium, going into her trance, suddenly announces, "There is another here" - presumably another medium or spirit - whereupon another member of the circle upstages the medium by going into a full-blown trance-possession. Imagine our surprise when the medium in Gravedigger's seance announced, "There is another," whereupon another member of the circle went into full-blow trance-possession.
This review has been updated with a footnote regarding the similarity between Gravedigger's seance and the "Seance" episode of Penny Dreadful.