nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
October 9, 2008
Have you ever watched a scary movie and had that moment where every part of your body tenses up in suspenseful anticipation of a scare? Yes? Have you ever watched a play and had a moment like that? Zombie Joe's Urban Death, opening an extended run of late-night shows at The Players Theatre, provides you with that unique experience. If you don't like that feeling or if blood and guts don't fill you with inexplicable glee, this isn't the show for you. If you love all things horror, read on!
Every master of horror has realized that the true magic behind the horror movie doesn't lie in story or words, but rather in the visual, sound, and music. The chill of Carpenter's Halloween grows from an expressionless white mask in the dark and the creepy, methodical theme music. Romero's Night of the Living Dead isn't the same without the grunts and groans of the Undead. Zombie Joe and his company cleverly build Urban Death on these principles, giving the audience a taut hour-long thrill-ride through more than 30 wordless horror vignettes.
These 30+ snapshots of terror prey on the audience's fear of the unknown. Each is a mix of death, sex, gore, and twisted innocence; and it's their interplay and the way that these themes are interspersed throughout the experience that make Urban Death so terrifyingly suspenseful. You never quite know what is going to happen in each vignette. Some are wonderfully disgusting and gory from the start, some start sexually and end gruesomely, some are so hilariously twisted that you can't help laughing and then wonder why, some start innocently and end perversely, and some are simply innocent. And it's the last case that is particularly brilliant. It's hard to imagine a little girl licking a lollipop or a maid cleaning the floor as scary, but because of the "stories" surrounding these interludes—they are terrifying; because of the impending dread that something may happen, you just don't know when or what it might be. To describe any of the vignettes further would take all that fun out of it, so: enjoy the unknown.
The ensemble (and this is an ensemble piece in the truest sense of the phrase) is extremely committed to the heart of the piece (as twisted and evil as that heart may be) and their wide range of individual talents are well-utilized. Christopher Reiner's original music is extremely diverse and is a character unto itself, as any good horror score should be.
However, the best "character" in Urban Death may be the most common theatrical convention since its creation: the blackout. Never has a theater blackout filled an audience member with such a sense of impending doom; never has it seemed so. . .well. . .black. The blackouts fill every transition between the vignettes and create the ultimate sense of the Unknown. Because you never know what you'll see when the lights come up. Will it be creepy? Disgusting? Or nothing to fret about at all? Will you look to your left and find a new horror right next to you? You never know. And that is what keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Zombie Joe's Underground is an award-winning company based on the West Coast that specializes in warped original pieces like this and delivering twisted views on classics, such as Macbeth and Poe's work. If Urban Death is any barometer of their work, I hope they pay the East Coast a visit more often. This show deserves a packed audience, if not for its clever adaptation of horror for the stage, then for the overall atmosphere. Because the only thing more terrifyingly fun than being alone with your imagination when the lights are out is hearing the nervous giggling around you and realizing everybody else is on edge as well. You can cut the tension with a knife and, when it comes to horror, what more can you ask for?