EDGAR ALLAN POE gets the Zombie Joe treatment in "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Bells." This seamless exercise in mock-macabre modernism from Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group is a model of barebones ingenuity.
Since 1992, garage impresario Zombie Joe has bombarded the San Fernando Valley with outre fare. "Tell-Tale Heart" raises the mind-bending bar. Poe's classic short story of homicidal guilt propels an eerily hilarious display that lasts barely an hour.
Crammed into the wee venue, half the audience sits before a black-curtained runaround, the other half perches along the south wall. Invaluable composer Christopher Reiner hits the keyboards looking like a ghoulish waiter, or some jaded relative of Rainn Wilson's mortuary intern Arthur on "Six Feet Under."
With a horror-movie organ chord, the cast assembles, wearing identical uniforms and facial variants of "The Scream," their red-palmed gloves a splash of color against the chiaroscuro. This insidious ensemble -- Christopher Coombs, Denise Devin, Sarah Grace, Jude Hinojosa, Billy Minogue, Jonica Patella, Ana Rey and Jason Wade -- is amazing.
They interpret the first-person text with demented discipline under Zombie Joe's straight-faced direction. The techniques include choral droning, split-second trade-offs and skittering choreography, all executed with convulsive coherence. Such experimental tactics combine with the hardware-store lighting plot and Reiner's sidebar numbers to weirdly wonderful effect.
For dessert, we get Poe's insanely metrical "The Bells," done in sly singsong to a deadpan polka. This inspired lunacy closes on Sunday. Avant-garde fans should reserve at once.
'The Tell-Tale Heart' and 'The Bells'
Where: ZJU Theatre, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood
When: 8:30 p.m. today, 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Info: (818) 202-4120
Running time: 55 minutes