The Zombies are back. The back-alley-crawling, crack house-dwelling immersive theater company currently inhabits an abandoned ice house, and they've redecorated it to look like a motel designed by Norman Bates - basement and all. Karaoke Motel is creepy choose-your-own adventure theater with a disjointed narrative about what it means to be alive.
If you've never been to a Dead White Zombies show before, this is a good place to start. Unlike T.N.B., last year's performance set in a former drug house in West Dallas, there are no gunshots fired here (blanks, of course) and no simulated rape. Karaoke Motel is meant to be the third in a series about death, the afterlife and rebirth, respectively. But having not seen the first two, I can attest this to be just as fun as a single entry -- a museum of theatrical oddities that you're encouraged to explore mostly unguided.
Enter with your ticket group. The show begins at 8:01 p.m., with two additional groups allowed in at 8:13 and then 8:24. It's stacked this way because while the middle portion of the show is fluid (creator Thomas Riccio claims he even hasn't seen it all), the beginning and the end are controlled. The first characters you meet reside in cubicles, one listens to tapes contemplating suicide, the other finds herself battling her body just to remain alive. Heavy topics, but presented with such irreverence that you, the wary theatergoer, learn quickly that giggling or full-out howling is not only appropriate, but appreciated. There are no rules in this seedy motel, except when you can check in and when you can check out.
As you leave behind the mind-numbing fluorescent lights of the cubicles, your adventure awaits. You may begin curiously jiggling doorknobs. Behind one you may find a man in drag with his hand up a ventriloquist dummy, another the bathroom. How you react to what you find is the theater.
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Riccio has been running the troupe for a few years, taking over empty buildings in West Dallas (with the gracious approval of the Trinity Groves arts liaison, Butch McGregor) and turning them into immersive, sometimes site-specific theater. While this show has very little to do with an "ice house," the verisimilitude of a former crack house for T.N.B.'s story of a black man searching for his soul and being fed hard-boiled bullets (literally) was a lot to process. This show has more in common with Sleep No More, a wordless play of Macbeth meets Rebecca, that took over three abandoned warehouses in New York City's meatpacking district to fabricate the McKittrick Hotel. What started as a limited run continues more than three years later because it continues to sell out. People are craving new theater experiences, which is what both Sleep No More in New York and the Dead White Zombies in Dallas provide.
What's most interesting about this show may also be its greatest turnoff for a newcomer. Audiences accustomed to the prescribed theater regimen -- find your seat, watch show, applaud at curtain -- may feel uneasy. The boundary of what is play and what isn't is blurred. Organized audiences know to stay in their assigned seats, but here you're best advised to ditch your friends and explore alone. The sit down and shut up policy? Discard it. Some of these actors will engage you, embrace it. If you need inspiration, slurp down a glass or two of wine before arriving (or purchase one at the front). Because if you don't arrive with a courageous approach to the evening, you might find yourself embarrassed, or simply annoyed that everyone else is having a good time having their fortune told, flirting with the sexy photographer in the basement, or cheering at the karaoke, and you just want to ask that friendly cranky motel maid Camille to lead you back to that pile of pillows near the front.
Karaoke Motel is a playful haunted house, in which the unexpected is around every corner. It's most fun when you are exploring and find rooms filled with carnal video art, or an impassioned lovers quarrel. It's least fun in the final moments when you find yourself trapped in a large room, and the actors attempt to block audience members from the exit. Those final moments feel like a waking nightmare, not because there are masked people barking like dogs or because that average looking guy you exchanged wary glances with earlier in the night is actually part of the show, but because you realize you're trapped. One poor soul ready to call it a night saw the exit in view, only to be thwarted by one of the actresses. It's participatory theater at its best much of the night, but the ending tries to pull the disjointed evening into alignment. But this play's skeleton is better left broken. That way audience members can piece together whatever version of a monster they discovered. After all, with the Dead White Zombies, the discovery is the best part.
Karaoke Motel continues Thursdays-Saturdays through December 13 at The Ice House, 2516 N. Beckley Ave. Tickets are $20 general admission and $15 for students. Find them at deadwhitezombies.com.