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Theater review: ‘Absolute Black’ at ZJU Theatre Group

January 17, 2012 | 12:06 pm


This review has been corrected, as detailed below.

A beautiful dame winds up dead, her mug plastered all over the papers. Can a hard-boiled gumshoe beat the clock to find the real killer before the coppers settle on some patsy who’s “just guilty enough” to close the case?

That’s the 64-simoleon question in writer-director Vanessa Cate’s new retro-noir thriller from Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group. With bloodshed somewhat toned down from ZJU’s usual Grand Guignol indulgence, this stylish period piece serves up a smart, snappy hommage to the pulp detective genre of the 1940s, though some allowances are required for the venue’s bare-bones aesthetic.

In an ADD-friendly run time, Cate’s elegantly crafted plot weaves a tightknit web of sinister motives and betrayal around the violent demise of aspiring starlet Minnie Walters (Carolyn Hayver), a promiscuous peach who bought the farm on the eve of her big-screen debut. Turns out plenty of folks had reason to bump off Minnie the smoocher, and in a series of flashbacks the suspects spill their guts under relentless grilling by an unnamed private eye (Willy Romano-Pugh).

The shamus is mainly there for the sake of efficient narrative exposition, a device neatly turned on its head in one of the show’s  funnier self-aware moments.Though some of the hardworking ensemble are cast younger than ideal for their roles, Cate’s articulate dialogue and expressive staging capably evoke the tough-talking, rapid-fire delivery and heightened intensity of classic noir melodrama. Atmospheric authenticity is furthered by Natalie Hyde’s superbly swanky costumes and a sultry soundtrack that includes original tunes by Carmelita Thomas and Joshua Kranz. 

Just as satisfying is the finesse with which Cate pushes past the tropes of the detective procedural to some insightful, touching reflections on sexual politics and unfulfilled physical and emotional longing. All in all, a square deal for your 15 clams.

For the record, 8:34 p.m., Jan. 18: An earlier version of this review misspelled actress Carolyn Hayver's name.


More theater reviews from the Los Angeles Times

-- Philip Brandes

“Absolute Black,” ZJU Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends Feb. 11. $15. (818) 202- 4120 or Running time: 1 hour.

Photo: Carolyn Hayver, Kyle Devero and Melissa Gentry. Credit: Vanessa Cate.