Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre
Extended through October 9
The stage at the Zombie Joe Underground Theater is really extremely small. While at times it feels like the size of a large conference table or a front counter at Starbucks, the electrifying power that erupts from this tiny postage stamp is really quite amazing.
Shows put on here are a throwback to that earlier era of local theater when edginess was king and the stage was slightly dangerous and a little unpredictable. Denise Devin’s adaptation of Medea, about a scorned woman gaining unholy vengeance against those who wronged her, could very well be the perfect fit for the Zombie Joe’s Underground brutalist ethos.
In Euripides classic, Medea (Jonica Patella), the witch princess of Colchis, forsakes her country to marry the hero Jason (Alex Walters). They have two kids, but after his return to his native home of Corinth, Jason dumps her to marry the daughter of King Creon (Dale Sandlin) who, fearing Medea’s reputation as a sorceress, orders her and her children exiled. This fear is not without basis in fact, as Medea uses the single day Creon grants her to prepare for her departure to kill her romantic rival with a poisoned dress, then slaughter her own children in a fit of rage.
In Devin’s startling staging, the action all takes place within an approximately ten-foot square area, crafting a haunting mood that’s artfully claustrophobic and intimate. With a play like Medea, one often feels like there must be a “reason” to stage it; here, it is the ferocity and rage of Patella’s suffering and vengeance-driven Medea that provides the raison d’etre. The tiny venue in effect turns the show into one prolonged close-up of Patella’s face as she rages, schemes, and enacts her terrifying justice.
The other performers orbit around her, but seem almost ancillary, as our focus, again and again, is drawn to Patella’s face, even when she’s silent. When her Medea feigns gentleness, to lure Creon into giving her an extra day in town, glints of madness seep through — but just for a moment. (You have to be paying attention to be sure you saw them.) It’s a cinematic performance — not technicolor or huge in scope, but the opposite: a nonstop close-up, reminiscent perhaps of a Bergman movie by way of Grand Guignol. You almost can’t look away.
Devin’s production boasts a calculatedly tribal quality: Patella’s face is covered with occultish tattoos; the other characters enter and exit to a sort of metronomic rhythm, while recorded taiko drumbeats thump like a headache, as if echoing what must be the frenzied throb of Medea’s escalating insanity. The play ends with a jaw-dropping tableau of witches and demons, connoting how hatred corrodes into something unholy and foul — it’s quite compelling. Good solid turns are offered by Walters’s oily and self-justifying Jason and by Sandlin’s haughty Creon, but the heart of the show is Patella’s towering performance as the murderous mother.
Zombie Joe’s Underground, 4850 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood; Sun., 7 p.m.; Extended through October 9 (no performance 9/18). (818) 202-4120 or zombejoes.tix.com. Running time: 1 hour