Reviewing something as strange and avant garde as Dead White Zombies’ DP92 is almost an impossible feat. Case in point: when I got home after the show, my husband inquired about my evening. “Well,” I said. “At one point during the night, someone dressed like walking syphilis was rubbing on another human while yelling ‘I secrete,’ and then everybody had tentacles. How was your night?”
That about sums it up.
Creator Thomas Riccio said that his goal with this show and its ilk is to take theater down off the stage and tell a story that doesn’t happen in a linear fashion, that is open to interpretation and dissection by the audience members. The result is less theater and more a two-hour beat poem with a theremin soundtrack.
Theatergoing audiences are accustomed to a beginning, middle, and end, which Riccio eschews completely, instead dropping us straight into the middle of the action, flickering between disjointed scenes and alternate pathways. Some actors act as the tour guides in this “science fiction fever dream,” as the show bills itself, herding attendees into the foyer and dividing them into groups — separating friends, couples, unsettling them from the start— before leading them down the rabbit hole into the strange, shrieking world of DP92.
In one room of the cold warehouse that serves as the production’s home, a “subject”, reduced to nothing more than two initials and a number, goes on a hyper-sexual rant, begging for touch and attention. In another, two more subjects are threatened by a sparking Taser when they go off script and try to clue us in to the darker undercurrents of this science experiment gone strange. No one person saw the exact same show that night, and I would wager a guess that experiences differ from night to night as well.
Riccio’s work has various themes that run through it, even when it’s hard to string together a real narrative. The cyclical nature of human life — we begin as simple creatures, and we eventually come full circle. How technology disconnects us, how being freed from it can open our eyes to the beauty and simplicity of the world around us. Whether intended or not, much of it comes across as overly introspective, like a freshman philosophy major, and aggressively, gratuitously sexual. I’m no prude, but various bodily functions and orifices were mentioned more than I typically enjoy in a single evening.
Truly, the responses of my fellow subjects may have been even more fascinating than the things happening around us. At various points throughout the evening, people’s emotional reactions ranged from intense concentration to helpless laughter, disgust to confusion. Those who were more familiar with Riccio’s work were a good deal more amused and relaxed than those who had bought a ticket and were wholly unprepared for what was happening — it was easy to tell the two groups apart. The set and effects are designed to throw people off kilter, and it definitely works.
As we left the warehouse, some audience members said they were unsure how to explain what they had just seen, their reactions making it clear that immersive, experimental theater is not necessarily for everyone. Immersive theater on its own can be an acquired taste, but layering experimental, non-linear theater on top creates a production that may feel awkward and hard to translate. Call me a purist, but I like my theater to have a little bit more plot and a little bit less humping. I’m still not entirely sure what I saw, but from what I can tell about Riccio and Dead White Zombies, that means it was a successful night.