The Fainting Couch: Theater Review
Narcissism, powerlessness, castration fears and more are the focus of this North Hollywood production by Zombie Joe.
Zombie Joe, one of the most distinctive and prolific talents on the Los Angeles theater scene, has ground out half a dozen or more productions annually for some 20 years now from his Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group in North Hollywood. Something of a flea-circus Orson Welles, he specializes in pitch-black horror fantasies of terror, both psychological and physical, in shows that rarely exceed an hour, always in his patented bravura succession of tableaux, blackouts, grand guignol blood and dismemberment, and disturbing sexual trauma on the postage stamp stage and claustrophobic space in which the audience cannot help but leer as the action literally snaps in its face.
In recent years, Zombie has found new religion, added a component of children’s theater and encouraged his committed company to assume more frequent playwriting and directing duties, without any apparent dilution of the house signature themes and styles, which persist even in their peregrinations into Poe and Shakespeare. However, it is always best when the Master again assumes the helm, as his new offering, Robert Riemer’s The Fainting Couch, convincingly demonstrates.
A ballerina (Natalie Hyde) reclines asleep on the titular couch as we file in. As she stirs, what follows never deviates from the logic of a fantasy nightmare. Along with the touring troupe of the Small Fool (Donna Noelle Ibale) and the Large Fool (Ricky Lacorte), she is a slave in thrall to the Boss (Rehyan Rivera), a magician and impresario who is intensifying his sexual abuse of her. The three minions conspire to free themselves, escape and murder the Boss, although both Fools also covet the Ballerina as an object of desire.
The manner of play is one of highly conscious camp, as the actors strike poses and read lines in a melodramatic manner consistent with the arrested development of a 14-year-old’s fantastical consciousness of the world and perception of self. A deeply immature work, The Fainting Couch works out obsessions and delusions founded on narcissism, powerlessness, castration fears, and intimations and exaggerations of sexual blossoming. Somewhat less sanguinary and shocking than much of Zombie’s past work, it is also more insistently disturbing to share the perspective of its worldview. Unremittingly earnest, with no lapses into winking irony or games of meta-awareness, its underlying vision is nevertheless more comic than tragic in the classical sense, inviting us to accept the roiling discontents of the unconscious in all its contradictory unreality. The directorial touch is far more lighthearted than heavy, despite the rigor of the fantasy. Zombie Joe finds a strain of the puritanical in his philistinism and rebellion, and his control of tone is daring and pitch-perfect.
But thankfully these excursions are not elaborated beyond the compass of how long we can bear to muck about in this precious, distressing universe. After the final blackout, the lights come up to reveal the Ballerina, returned to her repose, as we exit our ride through a shared dream.
Venue: Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, North Hollywood (through Nov. 3)
Cast: Natalie Hyde, Donna Noelle Ibale, Ricky Lacorte, Rehyan Rivera
Director and Producer: Zombie Joe
Writer: Robert Riemer
Costume Designers: Debbie Daniels and Natalie Hyde
Special Assistance: Denise Devin