Theater Review: Dead White Zombies’s Theatrical Installation, (w)hole, is a Long, Repetitive, Effusive Mess

What do we think we know about hell? The road to it, or the place itself? Paved with good intentions, probably some noble ideas, heartfelt desires. There might be sprightly piano music, maybe the tinkling of keyboard played by a kid who knows the chords to that particularly egregious Maroon 5 song, “Payphone.” This is the nicest way I know to begin writing about Dead White Zombie’s latest masturbatory explosion inside 500 Singleton, the creepy, cavernous (infernal?) West Dallas welding shop writer/director Thomas Riccio’s collective calls home. It’s a fascinating space, one that demands ambition and innovation, but one that deserves something more focused and feeling than this.

Things start out well enough. We are led from the lobby into a little anteroom where a woman hands us a stone. She instructs us to keep it with us on our journey. We have an escort—a man in a hat takes us over to a corner where black and white projections provide the scenery for a woman, a riff on Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, thrashing about, attached to bungee cables, wailing about a lover who has left her in ancient Troy. This isn’t the Penelope we encounter in Homer, rather a love-started adolescent, wretchedly longing for the touch of her wandering man. Actress Stephanie Cleghorn (about as excruciatingly terrible in this as she was in Flesh World) expresses insatiable desire with incessant yowling, delivering an overwrought interpretation of Riccio’s familiar nonsensical blather. Nonetheless, the scene, which could stand to drop a full five minutes, sets the stage for themes that repeat throughout, as we watch love remain unrequited through the centuries, in various reincarnations throughout the production.

After this scene, the audience is cut loose to watch (and occasionally participate in) scenes that crop up simultaneously in various places around the space, offering a grab bag of half-baked theatrical ideas. Physically, some elements of the installation can be quite beautiful, or at least interesting to look at. A massive puppet—some sort of fish, maybe, engineered by puppeteer and actor Justin Locklear—drifts in and out. A couple argues in a noir-style apartment. In the center of the space, a blindfolded woman moans and wails on a bed of rocks. Her presence is initially evocative, but after a few hours, it becomes something closer to awkward and superfluous.

Other evocative elements include wandering masked men, a woman dying on an operating table, a little girl (the best actor in the bunch) reading love letters, or a burly young man carrying a stone around the space. A room off to the side of the large warehouse space offers one of the nicer moment of the production—a maze of muslin sheets, a dreamy world of love letters and dried roses, almost like the clothesline-harem dream sequence from Fellini’s 8 1/2. It is all intended to create an experience of lived surreality, and as a result, there’s a good chance you and I won’t have seen the same show—or at least, not in the same order of scenes.

And yet too often all these sprawling scenes, dressed up with sound and scenery, offer nothing of consequence. You move forward from the large space into a subdivided series of rooms and a second open warehouse-like space. You receive psychic readings from a woman with stones, peek in on teenagers dancing in front of a television, or watch bodies writhe on a table in a room drenched with projected images and squelching sound installations. Their yelling is hard-to-decipher, but like all the dialogue here, it has to do with love and feeling. Or go back the way you came and find Locklear, once again proving himself the most dramatically capable member of the Dead White Zombie ensemble, pacing in a stunning gold dress, embodying the character of young noblewoman contemplating an arranged marriage.

(w)hole’s thematic jambalaya hinges on souls and soul mates—no matter how many times these characters experience reincarnation or separation, they will always find a way back to each other, weighted down by similar baggage. History repeats itself; lovers do too. With his amorphous, experiential drama, Riccio seems interested in exploring emotions and meanings that exist on the periphery of reason, somewhere near the fringe of our conscious experience. Hence all the stuff about enlightenment and personal change, about mythic and psychic journeys that provoke the expansion of the mind and of the heart.

The piece does possess a certain kind of ambition. This isn’t a play. Instead, its creator describes it as a performance installation. It is a series of performance vignettes, snippets of scenes that altogether don’t quite make up what we would call a “drama,” even if there may be some underling dramatic threads: recurring themes, characters, and scenarios. If you saw Riccio’s last production, Flesh World, you’ll be familiar with the structure. I saw it, and I didn’t like it. Then, Riccio published a piece on TheaterJones about how people like me just didn’t get it.

Towards the beginning of (w)hole, that argument resurfaces when a character asks us to be open to what will follow. We are asked to set aside our reason, to “open ourselves to experimentation.” I’d had two beers on an empty stomach. I was feeling pretty open, not unlike how I felt going into Flesh World.  But again the request is disingenuous, suggesting that the burden of the success or failure of Riccio’s piece relies on the disposition of the audience. After two-and-a-half-hours of meandering tedium, it is downright impossible to feel responsible for my lack of appreciation. That’s far too long to be wandering around the dusty warehouse, particularly when the artistic experience is this thin.

With its repetitious cycling through scenes of seeming cosmic significance, (w)hole‘s intent is certainly sweeping and bold, but that only serves to underscore just how short-lived the initial intrigue of the experience is and just how hollow all the scenes actually are. Soon enough, I finally found myself so bored that I started imagining that maybe the real purpose was to lure a small group of people into an ex-industrial building, torture them with an over-the-top effusive interpretation of the character Penelope, and then murder everyone — like her suitors — with poison incense. Talk about performance art! Talk about transgression! Talk about experimentation!

Or not. As things break down a little more than halfway through, audience members sit around yawning or wander aimlessly, actively trying to avoid inadvertently re-starting a vignette they’ve already seen by walking too close to a performer. We’ve opened ourselves up, prodded and poked at this mildly interactive production, and found ourselves growing weary of this dreamy world of ambiguity. Then we go from weary to impatient, and finally to downright irritated.

There’s something didactic about (w)hole’s emotive and effusive insistence, something arrogant and indulgent about its obscurity. Art doesn’t need to follow rules or conventions, but it does need to communicate. What (w)hole does is display emotionality, rather than offering actual tender, endearing, engaging emotions. It is a production in which feigned pageantry and pseudo-poetics stands in for real physical, psychological, intellectual, or emotional involvement on the part of the audience.

It may just be that Riccio believes these scenes and images and suggestive, open-ended characters and theatrical trappings convey more than they actually do. It could be that we, the people who don’t emerge transformed, really just don’t get it, or that we’re not the type of folks whose sensibilities are activated by Riccio’s convoluted ramblings. Or maybe we need be on drugs, or something. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt (good intentions, remember?), I think he has the wrong mythical allusion here. Rather than Penelope, there’s another literary figure who feels more ready made for this production—Dante’s Francesca, who is caught in an infernal wind with her lover Paolo, spinning in infinity. As with Dante’s famously distressed lovers, the experience of (w)hole is a kind of hell, equal parts torturous and tedious—a seemingly endless longing and groveling, reaching out and grasping for a consummation that will never come.

Photos: Alisa Levy


  • Dead White Zombies

    The performance implicitly asks all participants (performers and audience alike) to examine and be part of the (w)hole. This is a new experience and unexpected for a performance and some people.

    Like life, some are willing, open and available, others closed, frightened, and judgmental. Some expect rather than accept. Some understand or intuit the challenge and opportunity. Others hide, avoid, putting up defenses, grasping for the security of their truisms and fragile ego for clarification. Instead of simply being present they evoke inherited, dated criteria and values, clinging desperately to patterns and systems to define why and where they belong, think and feel. They need their world to be ordered in a certain way and stay that way. They move through a world of hollow signs and expectations—it is easy that way—it is their fate and destiny. Bundled and tightly wound with pre-conceived notions, fortifying and valorizing encrusted constructs of reality as to avoid themselves.

    Listening to the authentic self can be unfamiliar, frightening, revealing, threating, stressful, generating a neurosis of righteous indignation for that which challenges snug/smug comforts. When challenged and provoked, reactions often reveal the inadequacies, fears, and longings of their speaker.

    “Two beers on an empty stomach” do not make one open and available. However, it does serve as apt metaphor for a perspective and way of being. We all hear, see, and feel—when and how—what we need and want. Then there are the self-anointed and self-satisfied who scribble and share sad superficial snarky sophomoric spew for D(uh?) Magazine to fill their emptiness.

    Who are you and what do you want? Re-read the two beers and empty perspective or for a taste of an alternative perspective of the (w)hole—a little something for your cosmic stomach, attend and judge for yourself—check out…

  • Peter Simek

    @Dead White Zombies:

    Thank you for your comment and for thoughtfully engaging with this review. I am tempted to merely reply by saying that I don’t think you have been open enough to the experience of reading this review, that the criteria by which you dismiss it are outdated and insufficient — but that would only be a dismissively snarky rebut, while the points you raise here could set the stage for an interesting dialogue about the nature of art and criticism.

    If you didn’t appreciate the tongue-in-cheek humor attempted by the two beer comment, I understand. That line was intended to interject some buoyancy to a discussion about a humorless, self-serious work of art – to keep things engaging for our readers. Perhaps it was a failed joke.

    But as we say in the review, it is insufficient to claim that any negative reaction to your work implies an inadequate attempt on the part of the audience to properly respond to the piece. That kind of ridiculous criteria (however newfangled, which it decidedly is not) suggests that art cannot fail. Perhaps you believe this, and while I would agree that there is a kind of triumph in the presentation of an artistic expression of any form, the success of art relies on the ability of the form and content of the work to adequately translate the experience intended by its creator to the audience. Sometimes this can be a jarring and uncomfortable; “The Rite of Spring” incited riots from the unappreciative audience. (w)hole, on the other hand, is a work that attempts to break down its audience and expose them to a kind of authenticity by disrupting common experience and presenting a stream of ideas and performed emotions that suggest something beyond our usual methodology for deciphering meaning from a situation.

    But here’s the problem and really the only point we were trying to make above: If you were attempting to create something frightening, threatening, and stressful and revealing, we argue that it just wasn’t frightening and revealing enough. It was limp. I wish I felt threatened or stressed during the show. I wanted to feel those emotions, I was open and willing, engaging with performers and curiously poking around waiting to be shocked. What I found, however, was just the argument you present in your comment – that we need to “open yourself up.” This was repeated over and over again. In light of this, your accusation or “righteous indignation” is interesting considering that the tenor of your comment above suggests a kind of artistic evangelism – that we need open ourselves to hear the word of you. It feels like a kind of proselytizing, that if I don’t accept the truth of what your art is doing I am unable, unwilling, or sophomoric. Who is being self-righteous? Who is injecting a kind of religiosity into art? In reality, the great problem and sophomoricism of this city is that its artists can’t take criticism. I don’t question your right to make art, but you question our right to respond to it and articulate those responses.

    Art can’t tell us to react in a certain way, it must provoke us. (W)hole wasn’t forceful enough. It was actually a really safe piece. And despite the breakdown of the typical audience-performer divide (not exactly a novel theatrical innovation in 2012), I never felt actually unsettled by it. Was that my fault, or is it the artist’s fault in miscalculating just how sensitive or resilient his or her audience actual is? During (w)hole, I never felt like my body was potentially going to come to harm, that the ideas set forth were radical or unexpected enough to prompt a rethinking of the nature of reality. (How is a life parable that uses rocks moving across a table as a metaphor for the paths we – or our consciousness – take in life more mind-blowing than any children’s book ? How are performers running around in a room full sheets yelling about love-longings supposed to make me feel like I am intruding upon or immersed in some sort of raw, romantic reality?)

    There were some nice bits in (w)hole. The puppet was cool; Locklear’s monologue managed to make present a palpable romantic anxiety; the little girl reading the love letters was evocative. But mostly it was an excessively effusive piece, and that it has prompted some effusive responses on the part of the critics, I believe, is merely an indication that they are giving it the benefit of the doubt.

    All this to say I just hope that this review pisses you off enough that the next thing Dead White Zombies actually knocks us off our guard, truly challenges our comforts. Those are noble and achievable goals, and certainly welcome and needed in this city. I want to be afraid to go to a Dead White Zombies performance. But the only fear I had in (w)hole was that it was never going to end.

  • Brad Hennigan

    Peter, you bring up some great points, and as a member of Dead White Zombies I can honestly tell you that we have had lengthy discussions about many of the aspects of (w)Hole that you found lacking. One of the disappointing aspects of your review, and the reason for Mr. Riccio’s response, was its general lack of respect for the process of creating an original, experimental piece that in its very failure may in fact open new avenues in artistic expression. I am in no way claiming that this occurs in (w)Hole, but there is tremendous discussion, planning, work, and dedication that goes into such creation, little if any of which was acknowledged in your review. In fact, your review comes across as a scathing personal attack on the very idea that Thomas Riccio and everyone else involved with Dead White Zombies has the audacity to put their work on stage for public consumption.

    I have had reviews written about my performances and directing for more than thirty years, and I have been praised highly and dragged across the coals. This is the first time that I have ever felt compelled to respond. Why? The utter and complete contempt with which you treated the act of creation.

    Interestingly, your review (despite its very demeaning commentary on the performance of Ms. Cleghorn Jasso, and the equally demeaning claim that none of us but the little girl can act) was not anything worse than I’ve read before. It was not until you pointed out Mr. Riccio’s commentary on your (and other’s) review of Flesh World that you really showed your true colors. How dare anyone question your criticism?

    Perhaps you were attempting to embody your perceived experience with (w)Hole, because your review went on and on, repeating the same disappointment with ever more, yes, snarky vitriol.

    Again, interestingly,you then chose to write a thoughtful, respectful review in the comments section of your review, after your review was called out for what it is.

    For the aspects of your review that were truly critical, I thank you. We will continue to experiment in the world of artistic expression, and perhaps some of your perceived shortcomings in our work will be taken into account.

    For the rest (the majority), I would strongly suggest that in the future you leave your personal feelings about the artist(s) at the door when you write a review…not doing so only makes your readers perceive you as…well, snarky.

  • Raven

    I understand where you are coming from. You just said a lot of bad stuff. As a musician and a professional free runner and an artist in general I can take criticism. But not liking one song out of many others that I played was mean. And what you said about Stephanie was awful. She’s a wonderful actor and worked really hard to make this perfect. I’m going to make this short and straight up. I played Journey, Billy Joel, Jesse McCartney, Maroon 5, Flo Rida, T.I, Manowar and others. If that’s the one thing you don’t like I honestly don’t care but I wish you could at least acknowledge the fact that I played other songs. And everybody else worked really hard to put on a fantastic production. I don’t care if you like it or not to be honest, but at least acknowledge how hard we worked. Go read our other reviews and see what other people thought about the play.

  • Dallas dude

    You mad bro?