Does an Apocalypse Have To Be All Bad?

The survivalism experts of "How to Survive A Zombie Apocalypse" at the Hollywood Fringe. Photo: After Dark Entertainment

A friend was recently at the playground with her children when a stranger began to explain in detail about how the end of the world was fast approaching. Talk about an uncomfortable conversation to have in front of your children: “Mommy, does the Mayan calendar include my birthday? Or just the end of the world as we know it?”

From Mayans to Harold Campion to Revelations, a slew of  ideas about when the end will come are out there, so it’s only natural that the Hollywood Fringe Festival should weigh in. This year’s fest includes a bevy of shows about Armageddon — but plan now, because finding the right one for you can be as confusing as Campion’s math for determining when the Rapture will occur.

A no-brainer (literally) is How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. Destroying a zombie’s brain with two index fingers is just one of the techniques Dr. Dale Seslick (Dan Muir) and his bumbling crew are teaching at their “seminar” at Theatre Asylum. Drawing on what is obviously their vast knowledge of Science Fiction and horror films, Dr. Dale, a slick Brit in a suit and tie, and his team of “survivalism” experts began testing us. “Anyone here a vegetarian?” Dr. Dale asked. This being L.A., several people raised hands. “Dead,” he responded. It becomes a game with such dead audience members eliminated on the spot.

The School of Survival team is full of charm (I had a hard time turning down one specialist’s request to help repopulate the earth), in addition to witty quips and improvisations. What to do when you find yourself face to face with a zombie? “Get high,” is the correct response. Zombies can’t climb.

Some of the jokes are predictable, but they’re steady. And with a running a time of only an hour, this well-oiled sketch show, a sort-of “Battling the Undead for Dummies,” is a sure thing in a festival that is by nature, made up of teases.

Not so difficult to turn down would be an invitation to Annelies house, the stark hideaway of the cast of Deity Clutch. Inside, you’ll find Orko, Ukko and others who sound like they could be extras in Dune. They roam the dark halls in earth-toned Urban Outfitters-styled layers, bemoaning their terrible fate. Locked inside, they are subject to the tyrannous rule of their evil leader, Taranis. But at least they are safe from the deadly “Outsiders.” Or are they? (Now cue the crazy lady singing a creepy lullaby to a baby that isn’t there.)

No, I don’t see a way out of this maze of a murder mystery, either — especially after Gus Krieger, the playwright and associate artistic director of the Porters of Hellsgate, complicates the whole thing with two romantic subplots and strings of sub-sub plots, left mostly unresolved.

Stealing is a big theme in this play. Characters are taken from the house in the middle of the night. Two women steal kisses (forbidden by Taranis!) while on sentry duty in the attic. And several “Lost” episodes came to mind as I listened to talk of the Others, uh, I mean, Outsiders — as in this foreboding and philosophical declaration from Ashie:

“The subject gnaws its way through my mind many a long and sleepless night: What sort of soulless creature could steal away an infant child? But of course we all know the answer. We call them Outsiders. But the name only applies within these walls. Everywhere else, they just … are.”

Krieger has excellent instincts for building suspense and upping the creep factor. But while “Lost” has hundreds of episodes in which to tell its story, a Fringe audience has little over an hour to unravel this knotted ball of twine, and no assistance from, say, alcohol. At least not at the Complex Theatres.

But an apocalypse doesn’t have to be all bad. In fact, some believe that the annihilation of most of humanity will allow for rebirth — a sort of cleansing of the earth. Distance Over Time Theatre offers a similar interpretation, presenting the sweeter side of humankind’s possible destruction.

Of People and Not Things is as soft as a roll of Charmin — odd for a postnuclear disaster show. Thomas and Karen spend only a moment of time together on stage, but in two separate, simple monologues, they manage to weave together stories of lost love and innocence after the vaguely described “incident 307B.”

Not too much happens. Thomas, a former astrophysicist somehow responsible for the catastrophic event, now communicates with his bosses by leaving notes under a rock;  in the show, he declares his own responsibility and muses on his regrets.  Andrew Hungerford, the author, delivers Thomas’ apologies with a detailed attention to his character’s quirks and sensitivities:

“I am sorry that I didn’t pay attention. I am sorry for every time I made a joking remark that could have been misinterpreted. I am sorry about the frogs. I am sorry for not getting the tea water as soon as the kettle whistled. I am sorry about the squirrels. … I am sorry that I did not see the flashing red light. I am sorry for the inconvenience.”

Conversely, Karen, performed by Lauren Hynek with a Shakespearean presence a little too big for such a tiny space, looks to grant atonement:

“I forgive the assholes. I forgive language. I forgive test scores. I forgive the earth for being uncaring, I forgive it for its nature. I forgive the corrections of tide and time. … I forgive life for being unfair. I forgive you your fears. I forgive recent events. I forgive circumstances.”

Sure, any time there is an apocalypse, there is going to be some destruction. But just look at all the theater our speculation creates. And it’s not always a descent into total oblivion. Of People even suggests a Revelation:

“By the beginning of the 21st century, it was nearly impossible to escape man-made noise. It was everywhere: the rumble of cars, the crush of traffic, jets, helicopters, even in the most remote of places. The hum of giant electromagnets.

But now … now. You can step outside and lose yourself in the sound of the smallest breeze. Water dripping into a puddle half a block away. The song of the remaining birds.”

How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse (After Dark Entertainment), Theatre Asylum

Deity Clutch (Porters of Hellsgate), Complex Theatres

Of People and Not Things (Distance Over Time Theatre), Complex Theatres

Rachel Lee Harris

A culture writer for the New York Times, Rachel is absorbing some of Los Angeles' local color into her work, as well as onto her pasty-white legs.

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