Whore's Bath: Theater Review

Zombie Joe
(Top): Denise Devin, (Bottom, Left to Right): Monique Fronti, Helene Udy, Caitlin Carleton
It's a distinctively original reimagining of the Biblical story of Saul and David filtered through the bizarre underground stylings of joyously bedeviled local impresario Zombie Joe. 

Father-son issues of literally Biblical proportions play out on stage in North Hollywood.

The disturbing and intractable Old Testament account of King Saul (credited in the program as “Old Man,” Amir Khalighi), undone by his neurotic insecurity toward his surrogate son David (here “Young Man,” Willy Romano-Pugh), certainly presents the most pertinently relevant psychological portrait in the Bible, with Saul as perhaps the first recognizably modern tragic antihero in literature. David is the best friend and plausibly the lover of his own heir Jonathan (Abel Horowitz). Writer Robert Riemer, who haspenned more than a half-dozen texts for the ZJU company in North Hollywood (most recently, the magical The Fainting Couch), has concocted a highly allusive torrent of rhetorical excess for the aggrieved and deposed Saul to rail against the injustices done him as much by the cultural dislocation of the time (very much our own), as by the perceived malice of the ambitious, cruel and dazzlingly talented David, a perfect vehicle for the tortured theatrical imagination of director and company guru Zombie Joe, whose hallucinatory fever dreams find as much camp drollery and expurgation of anxiety in their trangressive shocks as anguished angst.

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The narrow oblong, blacked-out box of the company’s home thrusts the audience just as deeply in the face of the players as they assert themselves in their own attack on any decorous delicacy of the spectators’ sensibilities. Zombie Joe wrings relentless variations on tableaux groupings of groping bodies, without the least hint of a diorama’s emotional remove. Over his decades of prolific production, Zombie Joe has refined his narrow, particular vision into a clash of primal obsessions. Here, Saul becomes the ultimate obsolete father, a tormented remnant of masculinity and warrior virtue beleaguered by an omnisexual, opportunistic and ironically self-absorbed new social order, made up and costumed like tattered refugees from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, writhing like fugitive members of the Living Theatre and posturing like Warholian bit players. David’s Bathsheba (Cameron Munson)(who in the Biblical account only appears long after Saul’s death), is played by a male actor in desultory drag. The Oscar Wilde of Salome would certainly find the company congenial.

None of these twisted curlicues would transcend their bald outlandishness were it not for the profound gravitas Khalighi. He brings to his raging Lear-like Saul a true yet failed king whose indomitable vigor has been usurped by the incapacity of his classically virile values to cope with the threatening chaos of the obliterating mores of his succession. Romano-Pugh’s David must embody both shallow callowness and ruthlessly dominant authority, and he can only accomplish this task through his ambiguous, flaunting provocations of his mentor and former sovereign. Their dueling egoisms have an epochal dimension of grandeur deliberately undermined by the production’s mocking frivolity.

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Riemer and Zombie invest the Oedipal conflicts inherent in the story with brash oppositions of gender expression, not arguing sides but instead luxuriating in the sensory contradictions of tone, style and sexual identity, all brandished with intensely exaggerated physical gestures calculated to conjure and thus exorcise the inner demons. Whore’s Bath may not be intended to be perceived as a well-made narrative drama (more of hysteric oratorio), but it is nevertheless a nonpareil theatrical experience. 

Venue: Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, North Hollywood (through August 10)

Cast: Amir Khalighi, Willy Romano-Pugh, Abel Horowitz, Cameron Munson, Denise Devin, Caitlin Carleton, Monique Fronti, Helene Udy, Kevin Van Cott, Steve Alloway, Kirby Anderson

Director & Producer: Zombie Joe

Writer: Robert Riemer