Josh T. Ryan is a gifted comedic actor, a postmodern Red Skelton who uses gesture and physicality to convey the core of character. Under the deft direction of Zombie Joe, Ryan gives a wonderful performance in this series of short, mostly wordless sketches. He captures the essence of character and tone as he portrays a "greaser," carefully combing his hair over and over again in slow motion, or a single guy sunbathing on the beach, carefully arranging himself for maximum exposure not only to the sun but also to the eyes of female admirers. Some of his pieces are parody, such as the hilarious rendition of Colonel Saito, the commander of the camp in Bridge on the River Kwai, or the hapless break dancer in White Boy Breaks It Down. However, for the most part, these vignettes are slices of life that are thrust upward from the deep black sludge of existence.
In Business Man, a salary man waits for a train, plane, or bus, checking his watch, staring into the middle distance in a kind of futile existential pain. And in another sketch, a man seems to swim desperately upward, trying in vain to escape the sludge. The one departure from the tone of the evening is a ghost story that Ryan tells by candlelight about a visitation from several ghosts in a Santa Cruz house. Though different from the other pieces, it is also oddly affecting and theatrical.
The overall effect of the evening is both unsettling and humorous (though not quite as funny as several whooping groupies in the audience the night I saw it might believe). As in other Joe productions, the show displays both an original intelligence and evocative theatricality that are the hallmarks of this unique and important theatre company.
"Deep Black Sludge," presented by and at ZJU Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Sat. 8:30 p.m. June 26-July 31. $10. (818) 202-4120.