Dallas — Let’s just say this: Dead White Zombies’ kaRaoKe MoTeL was the best time I’ve ever had on a stormy night in a deserted icehouse on Beckley Avenue. My literary self went kicking and screaming into this world-premiere “immersion” experience, but I came out with a wobbly grin and an odd sense of well-being—and who can argue with that?
Moving for two hours through the half-dozen rooms of this faux maux-tel, I had my fortune told, twirled with a young actor to a favorite Gershwin tune (wait, no—I’m a critic!), comforted an existentially confused manikin, and watched a pair of bitter young lovers move through a series of quarrels—and come together with a clank of industrial magic.
I felt a bit lost, and then a bit found—and always, challenged to make my own meaning from the fragments being thrown at my head. Not everyone’s theatrical cup of tea, but the mostly Millennial crowd was lapping it up.
Of course, Zombies’ guiding light Thomas Riccio is having us on a bit here: there’s an eye-rolling amount of heavy pronouncement (“a nightmare lives upon the world”) in the script the actors use to guide us through this multi-scene maze. But because this is the “rebirth” part of Riccio’s “karmic life cycle” trilogy (2012’s Flesh World and (w)hole took on death and the afterlife), there’s fun stuff, too, and a hopeful, playful line of patter that pokes doom and destruction in the ribs. Yes, we’re all under a sentence of death, Riccio says—but in the meantime, bees buzz and kids ride bikes and lovers love…and there’s just a chance the human spirit might surprise us all and prevail.
Or the world will end. Whatever—let’s dance.
My 8:01 group (audiences—or are some of them actors?—divide into small bands for three “starts” into the space) surrender our “claim tickets” to a chatty Rastafarian gent, push past a series of white hanging panels, and “check in” at the front desk of a distinctly downscale motel. After that, things are something of a blur: a pair of lovers scream and quarrel in a filthy room lit by filmic images and anger; a Blanche Dubois-like ventriloquist tries to soften her wooden dummy’s dark view of existence; and a chambermaid shrieks and croons over the fate of the world’s (potted) plant life.
And just when we’re up to our eyebrows with these scenarios, light bulbs visibly click on, first above one head in the group, and then another: hey, we don’t have to just stand/sit here and take it. We’re free to move, to grab the controls and maneuver between one scene and the next, doubling back to see “same but different” versions as many times as we want. Look, the couple has changed: the Goth-clad woman now wears a snowy princess dress—but she’s still breathing fire, accusing the man from a pure-white bed: “You put me here!”
We find welcome relief and companionship in the wildly painted Lounge (those are old 45s that were its eyes), where a Sphinx sings standards accompanied by a gravel-voiced Piano Lady. Down the cellar stairs, there are flickering candles, a fortuneteller’s subterranean den, and a blindingly lit paparazzi’s studio standing in for our image-crazy culture. We jockey for space in these cramped rooms—until we are squeezed out (birth, anyone?) into a high-ceilinged, expansive old factory space that feels like a rusty cathedral.
And somewhere along the way, we relax into the experience. Total immersion it’s not—I think we all were quite aware of the “faux” nature before us—but as we traded smiles, sang together, commented on the action and sometimes became a part of it ourselves, there grew a sense of shared energy and communal bonding, however temporary. Maybe it’s only a paper moon, a one-night reality show in a karaoke world full of posers; but on that night, those who passed through—texting, chatting and drinking all the way—seemed happy to absorb the good energy of the piece and take it away with them.
Will the human race pick up the pieces and create the world anew—or go down in flames? The night’s most original aphorism seemed to sum up the genial vibe: Yes, the world’s fucked up. Maybe I should cut it some slack.
I came out clutching a small white paper, one of many tossed to the audience by the maxim-spouting Sphinx. It says: “Nothing seems impossible to you.” It doesn’t seem true…but I’ll take it all the same. After all, the kaRaoKe MoTeL is a self-guided tour—and as Riccio intends, the metaphors and meanings you collect along the way are likely to be exactly “what you need to hear.”
» Here's a video promo for the show: