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Vincent Cusimano and Vanessa Cate in Josh T. Ryan and Zombie Joe's fashion world-riffed Othello (photo by Josh T. Ryan)
Vincent Cusimano and Vanessa Cate in Josh T. Ryan and Zombie Joe’s fashion world-riffed Othello (photo by Josh T. Ryan)

Othello

Reviewed by Bill Raden
Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group
Through July 30

RECOMMENDED

Long before Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre established itself as L.A.’s reigning purveyor of precision shock-goth vaudevilles (Urban Death), the company was known for a more aggressive form of punk-inflected provocation that owed as much to GG Allin as it did to anything imagined by Antonin Artaud. By the late ‘90s, the troupe had evolved from anarchic garage spectacles that often climaxed in emblematic assaults on old TV sets to a more skillfully embodied style of physical theater that they applied to both riotous Grand Guignols and devised literary and musical adaptations.

But ZJU didn’t neglect the Bard, and what is most impressive about director Josh T. Ryan’s vividly realized revival of Othello, Ryan and co-adaptor Zombie Joe’s wickedly brutalist 2002 travesty, is just how effectively Shakespeare’s tragedy about 17th century bigotry lends itself as a palimpsest for what plays as both an angry punk-performance manifesto and an irreverent indictment of gender-related injustice closer to home.

Rather than a Venetian military leader, this Othello is a designer of androgynous, BDSM-accented clothing, with the action transposed from Cyprus to the world of contemporary high fashion. Longtime company member Vanessa Cate (who is also an editor and critic at Stage Raw) does double-edged drag in her confident turn as a scrupulously dignified Moor — impersonating not only a heterosexual male but a black male as well, replete in coffee-colored, full-body blackface.

Ryan’s multilayered quotation marks around gender and race are the evening’s first salvo at the play’s true target — the culture industry and its complicity in the promotion of heteronormative gender roles that queer theorists implicate in the racist, classist and misogynistic violence that girds patriarchal authority.

But it is Vincent Cusimano’s antic portrayal of an outrageously polyamorous Iago that foregrounds the adaptation’s broadest irony. In his emerald-glitter makeup, cropped velvet jacket and glued-on, ultra-low-waisted pants (Cate is also credited with makeup design and costuming), Cusimano is a green-eyed monster of priapic proportion — both a wildly flamboyant foil to Othello’s determinedly straight-laced heterosexual and the subversive third gender that deliriously lays waste to a demimonde seething with metrosexuality.

Strong performances by the supporting cast of doomed fashionistas include Amanda Dyba and Anna Gion (suggestively Sapphic as Desdemona and Emilia respectively); Robbie McDonald as an outlandishly mincing Roderigo (McDonald also performs acoustic guitar during the show’s musical interludes); Kevin Alain as a beefcake Cassio straight out of Tom of Finland (his “reputation” scene with Iago spontaneously breaks off into a slobbering and seat-squirming five-minute French kiss); and Michelle Snyder as the pouting and eerily spasmodic photographer who silently documents the proceedings.

There’s nothing exactly nuanced about an evening that so freely ranges from somber drama to the high camp of undercutting Othello’s tragedy with the broad burlesques of Broadway-styled musical numbers (featuring Cate’s fine choreography). And one wishes that Ryan had more sufficiently grounded the staging’s use of something as incendiary as blackface for its apparent critique of theater’s tarnished record of representing race. But if his arguments are mostly made with all the subtlety of graffiti, it is no small achievement that they successfully connect, and do so with admirable and entertaining panache.

 

Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; through July 30. (818) 202-4120, zombiejoes.com. Running time: one hour and ten minutes.

 

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