Reviewed by Bill Raden
True Focus Theater at Zombie Joe’s Underground
Through August 30
In academia, the best measure of a graduate school program is said to be the outcomes of its students after they get their degree. In that sense, the founding last year of True Focus Theater by Zombie Joe’s Underground veterans Vanessa Cate (who is also a reviewer for Stage Raw), Natalie Hyde and Angie Hoover became something of a test case for whether ZJU’s transgressive brand of Gothic physical Expressionism was merely an idiosyncratic outlier or whether it could take creative root in a new generation of artists.
What becomes most apparent in Love Sucks, the troupe’s third production and, like last year’s Cat Fight and February’s Life, Death and the Middle, a company-devised cabaret, is that True Focus’s performance ethos draws as much from the universe of satirical improv as it does from the ZJU school.
Its edgy and entertaining, mostly sardonic riffs on the romantic clichés trafficked by mainstream viral R&B, Soul and AOR love songs — smoothly directed by Cate and Hoover — is the kind of affectionate, half-homage/half-parody collage that ZJU patented in the aughts in a slightly more abbreviated, 60-minute form. (Love Sucks runs 90 minutes without intermission.)
The most striking difference that the show highlights between ZJU and True Focus is in the latter’s pointedly less ambivalent relationship to its source material. Underneath the gentle mockeries of Love Sucks’ 21 musical, dance and occasional sketch vignettes is the feeling that a quite sincere message is being slipped in about tolerance for some of the more risibly ecstatic and unsavory sexual absurdities that arise in both popular culture and in life.
That sense is perhaps most present in Cate and keyboardist Evan Hillhouse’s hilarious and emblematically show-stopping piano-bar sendup of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” in which Cate performs a white-bread rendition of the notoriously profane and misogynistic ghetto rap in a teased red wig and gown.
Both Cate and Hoover contribute a handful of comically pointed dating and relationship sketches that include Hoover’s B&D-edged look at tortured heartbreak, “Breaking up is Hard to Do” (featuring Tucker Matthews, Tasha Porche and Tyler Koster); Cate’s No Exit-tinged “Forever,” in which a trio of old school friends reunite to satisfy old infatuations only to be frustrated by misdirected reciprocity (Cheryl Doyle, Matthews and Mark Nager); and Hoover’s STD internet dating satire, “Blind Date” (Doyle, Koster, Matthews and Mariana Leite).
The show’s wit and more poetically reflective sides are anchored in allegorical dance numbers choreographed by Natalie Hyde and Cheryl Doyle, as well as the creditable original love song contributed by Hillhouse. And while the brisk pace, enviable laugh quotient and overall polish of the evening certainly live up to the expectations invited by this kind of stage hybrid, one can’t help leaving the theater feeling impatience for when True Focus will commit itself to the kind of full-length dramatic work that will finally establish its serious artistic bona fides.
True Focus Theater at ZJU Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; through August 30. Lovesucks.brownpapertickets.com.