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