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Zombie Joe Takes on A Midsummer Night’s Dream

When you hear that someone called Zombie Joe is adapting and directing a Shakespeare play, how can you not envision the Bard gone horror film? Invasion of the Gentlemen Corpses of Verona? Hamlet, Prince of Teenage Evil? Mutant Coriolanus? Stepford Wives of Windsor?

Firecat Productions’ hour-long version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, now running at the Players Theatre Loft, comes closer to A Midsummer Night of the Living Dead—but not in a good way. An ensemble of 12 young players shout and jump their way through the romantic romp, uniformed in black pants and tops. Faces are painted with raccoon eyes and spiderwebs, tummies with flowers and the like. Moving in a tight amoeba-cluster of sweaty bodies, actors leap out of the pack to speak rapid-fire lines before diving back in. On the tiny, bare stage, it looks and feels like an acting class for overcaffeinated Goths.

Midsummer—a play I always thought indestructible—gets trampled under this noisy mess. Shakespeare’s comedy about the confusion of realms—fairies, courtiers, animals—just can’t emerge when everything’s so mashed together that characters are never created. By the time the rustics stomp and scream their way through the Act V “Pyramus and Thisbe” play-within-the-play, it feels indistinguishable from the rest—mindless like a zombie, but without the thrills.

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Urban Death

Zombie Joe is the real thing: a genuine outsider artist with an aesthetic so single-minded it approaches madness. In Urban Death, an hour-long anthology of wordless terror tableaux, this North Hollywood–based writer-director carves a gory path somewhere between visionary theater and exploitation, between Richard Foreman and Ed Wood.

Opening with an Abu Ghraib–like pile of bodies that slowly quakes up into staring, stalking zombie life, Urban Death treats us to a nightmare clown, erotic asphyxiation, flashlight-lit creepy-crawlies, and assorted excisions and suppurations. Joe’s ensemble of 10 varies widely in polish but not in commitment—their eyes bugging over thick makeup, they all look like graduates of the George Romero school of commedia dell’arte.

Though the pace and shape of the evening often wavers, Zombie Joe has mastered one thing above all: the unique power of theatrical darkness. Many of these vignettes last less than a minute before they’re swallowed up by chillingly complete blackouts, and the resulting blackness seems to discolor even the show’s most garishly lit images. That sense of encroaching, inescapable gloom is finally the scariest thing about Urban Death. It may not be deathless art, but there’s an unmistakable, undead pulse in Zombie Joe’s black-box theatrics.