Reviewed by Bill Raden
Zombie Joe’s Underground
Through Dec. 20
As the holiday flood gates open in earnest and L.A. stages find themselves awash in dubious Yuletide platitudes about the true meaning of Christmas (or their satirical analogues), leave it to Zombie Joe’s Underground to devise counterprogramming capable of resisting the season’s sentimental undertow of Dickensian treacle and the tidal forces of commodifying hype.
Morrison Christmas is ZJU’s latest company-created, song-and-dance fuck you to the holidays. It plays as a hallucinatory, stream-of-consciousness homage to — and evocation of — the 1960s counterculture and its belief that music, art, literature and theater could entertain as well as be efficacious forms of political resistance.
The question of whether that idea now seems impossibly naïve in this more cynical and globalized age or remains just as imperative shapes the show’s implicit, dialectical spine as the company races through 33 brief movement and spoken-word pieces in under an hour, mostly set to the music of The Doors.
The tone of sly protest that permeates the evening is set by Alex Walters’ acoustic rendition of Bright Eyes’ “At the Bottom of Everything,” Conor Oberst’s 2005, folk-ballad embrace of ego death that forms a bridge to the show’s more vintage quotations of ‘60s psychedelic luminaries ranging from Alan Watts to quasi-beat poet (and Doors frontman) Jim Morrison.
Theatrically, the obvious referents in director Josh T. Ryan’s stage vocabulary of collage, the elimination of dramatic masks (the actors all perform as themselves), group gropes and snaking, amoeba-like choreography are to ZJU’s self-acknowledged antecedents like the Living Theater, the Open Theater and, perhaps especially, the Performance Group’s Dionysus in 69.
Structurally, the piece follows the Tibetan Book of the Dead with performer Vanessa Cate (also a Stage Raw reviewer) bookending the show as a kind of high priestess, ritually invoking death and rebirth. The cycle’s interstitial moments of enlightenment take the form of bits based on Lakota religious ritual (led by Cate and Amir Khalighi), Hinduism (led by Brenda Nicole Walsh) and even Christian Evangelicalism (led by Khalighi), which highlight its embrace of a global spiritual gestalt. (Cheryl Doyle, Marc Erickson, Chelsea Rose, Cynthia Salazar, Olivia Spirz and Alison Stolpa round out the ensemble.)
And if Morrison Christmas sets out to recapitulate the death-rebirth cycle in its theatrical arc, its more profound achievement is to progressively remove the ironic quotation marks from its source material in what emerges as a rather touching and surprisingly sincere reaffirmation by the company of its venerable artistic roots.
Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., NoHo; Fri.-Sat., 11 p.m.; through Dec. 20. (818) 202-4120, zombiejoes.tix.com.