"Eccentric yet august taste," to quote Edgar Allan Poe, permeates "Masque of the Red Death" at Zombie Joe's Underground. This macabre in-the-round reading of Poe's plague-ridden classic typifies the company's skill at interpretive mayhem.
Mingling in the lobby, attendees can don party masks to the adept playing of guest violinist Robert Matsuda. Before the house opens, planted cast members succumb to violent fits and bloody sweats. Then, grinning madly, Denise Devin and Shaun Mathieu-Smith usher us inside over the bodies.
We assemble on either side of a venue that is deliberately short on chairs, while these grim escorts guide any viewers brave enough to the facilities -- "Towelette for the bathroom, right this way." The rest of the ensemble joins in to the accompaniment of Christopher Reiner's somber yet cheeky music, against walls painted the hues of the seven chambers of Poe's text.
That morbid tale, in which hedonistic nobles sequestered in a ducal abbey ignore the pestilence to their peril, unfolds with twisted finesse. Thanks to director Zombie Joe's fine eye for color and effects, especially the resourceful lighting, his vivid actors merge equal parts glare and glitter, piquancy and phantasm.
Billy Minogue makes a suitably dauntless Prince Prospero, and petite Jonica Patella suggests an antic golem. Ana Rey, Nicole A. Craig and Maria Olsen are contrasting models of straight-faced perversity, and Mark Hein's classical stature is formidable. His climactic arrival in artist Brian O'Connor's cunning metal mask is, like Devin's cracked torch song and Matsuda's lucid Bach interlude, both droll and creepy.
Sightlines and seating comforts are variable, but the unhinged cohesion never wavers, even as we exit past the final corpse pileup. Poe would surely approve.
-- David C. Nichols
"Masque of the Red Death," ZJU Theatre, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends April 28. $12. (818) 202-4120. Running time: 1 hour.
Taut tale of what happens in 'Tryst'
A period suspense drama laced with modern psychological twists, Karoline Leach's "Tryst" charts its sinister, atmospheric arc at the Black Dahlia Theatre with an economical elegance that even the most discriminating genre fans will relish.
Set in Edwardian England, Leach's two-hander depicts a romantically charged game of cat and mouse between George Love (Gabriel Olds), a handsome con artist who preys on gullible women, and his latest victim, a mousy spinster named Adelaide Pinchon (Deborah Puette).
In overlapping introductory monologues, Olds and Puette skillfully sketch their characters through contrasting perceptions of their two-day courtship and secret elopement.
Cynical, cunning and charming as he effortlessly adopts the manners and diction of a higher social class, George confesses his well-honed seduction techniques with a sociopathic pride coupled with a curious sense of tact. "I slip them a little dream and make them pay a good price for it," he boasts, explaining that he always makes it a point of honor to fulfill the husband's wedding night duties before running away.
Puette's love-struck Adelaide is so naive, trusting and paralyzed by low self-esteem that by the time she hands over her bank book and jewelry even George is moved to pity. Probing the roots of her eating disorder and other "Oprah"-worthy neuroses, he awakens an unexpected boldness in his temporary bride that threatens to upend the balance of power -- the first of the play's artful plot twists.
Literal-minded viewers might find Puette prettier than the script calls for, and a slightly older George facing the twilight of his gigolo good looks would have more reason to be tempted by Adelaide's offer to change direction. Yet these sharp performers energetically sell the piece in Robin Larsen's crisply paced staging. Craig Siebel's stylish modular set ingeniously employs a curvy, hobbit-hole look to add layers to the intimate stage space.
Depth may be in an illusion in what is ultimately a formula thriller, but the illusion is just about perfect.
-- Philip Brandes
"Tryst," Black Dahlia Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 6. $20. (866) 468-3399 or www .thedahlia.com. Running time: 1 hours, 35 minutes.
With Mamet, it's 'Squirrels' run wild
The significance of David Mamet's "Squirrels," written in 1974 at the start of his career, is primarily historical. Nevertheless, the lively revival at Santa Monica's Miles Memorial Playhouse offers an engaging snapshot of a formidable emerging talent.
In this trenchant comic one-act, Mamet focused not on the lowlifes and scam artists who populate his familiar works but on a more nakedly personal subject, the act of writing -- with predictably sardonic results.
In a drab office adorned with an overstuffed filing cabinet and an antique typewriter, a middle-aged author tries to overcome writer's block with the help of his younger apprentice.