Once a year, usually in the fall, the Dead White Zombies emerge from the mind of Thomas Riccio. An immersive theater troupe run by experimental theater-maker Riccio, the Zombies have taken over everything from a former crack house to ramshackle warehouses. Last year, the group took over a former ice house and turned it into an array of mystical rooms for Karaoke Motel; this year they return to the same location, inviting visitors to explore DP92, a science fiction fever dream. Riccio considers it a nod to classic science fiction films, but his productions are inextricably linked to ideas of spirituality and ritual. Here, he crafts a show about the first complex life form, the mollusk, invading a mysterious scientific institution, evolutionarily uniting life at both ends of the spectrum. Viewers will be divided into groups and invited to explore the lab to discover the mysteries of the mollusk brain. We asked him some follow-up questions, but don't be surprised, most questions remain unanswered. It's all about the discovery.
What are some of the 1950s science fiction films you're referencing in this show?
Boy, all sorts haunt my mind. I grew up on them, still love them, and now the world is turning into a 1950s sci-fi movie. In particular (no particular order): The Monster that Challenged the World; It! The Terror from Beyond Space; It Came from Beneath the Sea; 20 Million Miles to Earth; Creature from the Haunted Sea; Attack of the Crab Monsters; Not of This Earth; and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women.
How would you distinguish what science fiction is and how does it work as a storytelling device?
Science is the new magic, divination and mythology. The world is science fiction now — all of it, everything — we just think it is normal. Some narratives recognize the fiction, others call it reality. Have you ever seen an atom? Because we can hold and measure something doesn't mean it is more real or know what it means, where it came from and its implications; it simply is the best explanation, the best system we have going now. Tomorrow it may all go wrong, and then another meaning system will evolve. That is what DP92 is about, in part. And it's also about having fun with fantasy, fear and the emergence of the mollusk mind. In terms of storytelling, it is liberating. It enables me to call into question the nature of reality and meaning. It is as much freedom as you can find within the confines of the imagination.
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Aesthetically how would you describe your show and how was the piece designed?
We work site-specifically. Our site is an old ice house, so we are leaning heavily on the dystopia vibe. The implication is that something happened and the "institution" audiences enter [is] a hope for survival. They are visitors with the hope of being admitted. The institution is cobbled together with found this and thats. It starts very controlled until it gets way out of control. There is a lot of blue shrink wrap, the kind they use on boats. We liked the way it looked, melted and how it drips, and we got carried away. It looks organic and like it is taking over. Love the stuff. The design concept is conceived in totality, evolving along with the scripting and directing. I see them simultaneously interactive. Robert David Reedy, Dale Seeds and I collaborated on the execution of the installations and environments. Scot Gresham-Lancaster did the sound with Chris Travino doing lights and Jelena Princeza on costumes. Danielle Georgiou did the choreography. I did the video, with additional videos by Alis Eykilis. We have a great team, mostly eccentric as hell.
This piece sounds as though it explores the links between different life forms and the journey to what we know, or what we think we know, folding time onto itself.
It definitely follows the journey motif — the journey of the characters and of the audience. We all go through a fragmented sequence. Is it an experiment? Is it the revealing of the mollusk mind? A hallucination of some sort? The environments and sound are also part of the disorientation. That is the point, to break down those rigid structures that rule our world, to devolve to the mollusk mind. It is what we all have evolved from. It is a happy return.
Since you're separating visitors into groups, how can I assure I end up in the "best" group?
Chance is how the spirits speak. Isn't that life? How do you wind up anywhere with anyone in particular? Your openness makes it the best. The best is always there. Everything is perfect. Even shitty is perfect. There is no right or wrong, up or down. Don't look at me. You won't get a straight answer. Because there are none!
Should I be frightened?
You can be and feel whatever you like. Because of the close proximity with other audience members, you will read what they are feeling and going through, and that is part of how it works. It's experimental, mad science — science fiction in an hour and a half. Test results are not, and cannot be, guaranteed. You're a lab rat, enjoy yourself.
See DP92 October 29 - November 22 at Beckley Icehouse (2516 N. Beckley Ave.). Tickets are $20 and audiences are limited to 30 people each performance. More at deadwhitezombies.com.