THE MASTERPIECE

Exploring the bizarre, the macabre, and the surreal would seem the preoccupation of Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre, and if it's possible to go overboard in any of those directions, Zombie Joe—aka Zombie Joe, as far as one can tell—does it. Entering the theatre is like walking into a forbidden cave in hell; the walls are noisy with mod, pop, commercial, cartoon, sexual, retro, futuristic and graffiti art, each vying for dominance. It's easy to feel a headache coming on.

When The Artist (Josh T. Ryan) isn't working on his mad mural, he's jerking catatonically to some screaming musical vibes, overseen by a serious Therapist (Brennan Marquez), who has no inkling he's about to become a human Twinkie. (I'd explain if I could.) The Artist, it appears, has done a deal with Zipper (Matt Kilo), a green-skinned devil with a stentorian bark, and his time to roar is running out. A short extension on his self-immolation allows him to conjure up his lifetime darlings and demons and dispatch them accordingly, thus ensuring he'll die insane but famous, which is his end of the deal.

Somewhere under the paint, the gore, and the craziness is a psychotic Portrait of the Artist as a Mad Man, driven to self-destruction by the cliché that is life. Ryan is enormously appealing and suitably scary as the beleaguered painter with no legitimate way out of his addictions. Ben Goodman is way out there as Roxy, a transvestite vampire; Matthew Sklar is Intercom Jim, a voice of weird sanity in a mad, mad world. Beth Hilsabeck, adorably horrid as Little Girl, plays The Artist's game, licking a Twinkie as lasciviously as if it were a living body part. Denise Devin, the Dead Lover, dances sensually, without touching her bereaved painter. Jim Eshom, as a twitchy Blane, provides the power powder that keeps the motor racing.

The one-hour extravagant sendup doesn't aim at sense, but it has a royal time getting there. The play was ZJU's first presentation and has become its flagship show; the current production celebrates the company's "10th year of undying fire." It's not everyone's cup of tea—not even mine, really—but writer/producer/director Joe has to be ranked high in the madly creative and outrageously experimental division of the scuzzy underworld of eclectic, bizarre, and bold hyper-theatre.

"The Masterpiece," presented by and at ZJU Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8:30 p.m. Mar. 22-Apr. 13. $10. (818) 202-4120.