“Joe’s Garage” at Open Fist Theater

Joe’s Garage
Open Fist Theatre




“As you can see, girls,” Frank Zappa’s robotic creation The Central Scrutinizer warns the stageful of giggly groupiebimbos in the world premiere of the master’s rock opera Joe’s Garage at the Open Fist, “music, drugs, diseases: they all go together.”

Joe’s Garage, released in two parts as recordings in 1979, was always thought to be unproducable, but obviously rabid Zappanistas Pat Towne and Michael Franco thought differently and here have cleverly made the impossible not only happen, but happen with glorious results in their spirited, raucous, no-holds-barred adaptation of the original albums. Directed by Towne, this one of the most inventive and important musical productions of the year for El Lay, scrapped together by the creative artisans of Open Fist with a lot of cardboard, some cleverly recycled STOMP-like props, and a wellspring of world-class imagination.

Zappa’s story follows Joe (Jason Paige), a garage band rocker whose quest to make music is squelched by the government’s total ban on making music. It’s a world where the constitution itself has been modified “in an effort to prepare for the future,” not unlike what the current administration has been doing the last eight years—and, if we’re all not vigilant, will continue to do into the next eight years with boldfaced lies and criminal disregard for everything decent and just.

Joe is encouraged by The Central Scrutinizer to leave his silly musical dreams behind and find his way within the teachings of the Catholic Church, here depicted as a secret den of debauchery and blowjobs long before the families of alter boys realized how much money could be made by coming forward. Although Joe finds a wholesome young girl to help him make his music-less journey to salvation, his clean-living Mary (Becky Wahlstrom) is soon lured by one of those evil rock bands into a life of sin even the priests and nuns couldn’t imagine exploring, no matter how much they might want to.


Mary discovers she has a “tongue like a cow that can make you go wow” and leaves Joe to join the groupies putting out on the back of a tour bus, while the despondent Joe falls into a downward spiral that includes tithing all his money to L. Ron Hoover’s First Church of Appliantology and finding solace in a hot sexual relationship with a club-hopping robot named Sy Borg — that is, before poor Joe gives him a golden shower that destroys his BF’s non-water resistant circuitry. Sentenced to prison for the deed, Joe is repeatedly raped by the detergent-snorting musicians and record company execs housed there until his spirit, along with his desire to create music that might just change the world, is pounded out of him.

Towne directs his faithful and delightfully vulgar co-adaptation of Joe’s Garage with the perfect emphasis on the loss of one’s humanity and ideals in the face of corporate and political greed, complete with costumes out of Plan Nine from Outer Space and crudely constructed set and prop pieces — from Shawn McAuley’s lightshow of a Central Scrutinizer puppet suspended from the rafters to an oversized dancing toilet with teeth that Joe would like to believe is the cause of him contracting an STD in the brilliantly inappropriate production number “Why does It Hurt When I Pee?” — fit reverently into the mix.


Lead by the knockout vocals of Paige and featuring a showstopping turn by singer/blues guitarist Ben Thomas, Joe’s cast is passionately committed to this difficult but juicy material, but the most impressive component of all here is the onstage band Open Fist has managed to assemble, with both the musicians and the ensemble’s vocals led with remarkable skill by musical director Ross Wright and augmented by Tim Labor’s wonderfully loud and in-your-face sound design that both intrudes and augments Zappa’s compositions splendidly.

Would that misters Towne and Franco has been around 30 years ago and smoking out with Zappa at some party in Laurel Canyon getting his full attention as they pitched how they could make Joe’s Garage transition successfully from vinyl to a visually splendiferous attack of boldly imaginative live theatre. Then it wouldn’t have taken all these years to see Joe’s Garage finally spring into the worshipful fruition it deserved back then, perhaps able to be appreciated without the overhanging stigma of being something of a nostalgia piece as it is today.


But then, we wouldn’t have known what we now know back then either: how right that wildly un-PC social critic (and unparalleled musician) Frank Zappa was in his pronouncement of what could be the future of America, a place where his outrageously predicted fascist theocracy, not to mention the Central Scrutinizer itself, have become all too real.

Doggone it and don’tcha know, guys and gals, as that recently media-circused anti-Christ of a hockey mom who would be king might put it, at the heart of all great satire all the way from Lysistrata to Joe’s Garage is a scary, scary dose of insight and truth about how we live and what we as a people will put up with just to get through life without making a stand for what we believe. In other words, vote and vote carefully in a few weeks, my droogies, before any of those scary Bush clones plug their own Central Scrutinizer into the overtaxed electrical outlets at the White House and continue to fuck us all from behind.

Joe’s Garage plays through Nov. 22 at the Open Fist, 6209 Santa Monica Bl., Hollywood; for tickets, call 323.882.6912. www.openfist.org

TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER teaches acting and theatre/film history at the New York Film Academy’s west coast campus at Universal Studios. He has been writing about LA theatre since 1987, including 12 years for BackStage, a 23-year tenure as Theatre Editor for Entertainment Today, and currently for ArtsInLA.com. As an actor, he received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Best Actor Award as Kenneth Halliwell in the west coast premiere of Nasty Little Secrets at Theatre/Theater and he has also been honored with a Drama-Logue Award as Lennie in Of Mice and Men at the Egyptian Arena, four Maddy Awards, a ReviewPlays.com Award, both NAACP and GLAAD Award nominations, and six acting nominations from LA Weekly. Regionally, he won the Inland Theatre League Award as Ken Talley in Fifth of July; three awards for his direction and performance as Dr. Dysart in Equus; was up for Washington, DC’s Helen Hayes honors as Oscar Wilde in the world premiere of Oscar & Speranza; toured as Amos “Mr. Cellophane” Hart in Chicago; and he has traveled three times to New Orleans for the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, opening the fest in 2003 as Williams himself in Lament for the Moths and since returning to appear in An Ode to Tennessee and opposite Karen Kondazian as A Witch and a Bitch. Never one to suffer from typecasting, Travis’ most recent LA performance, as Rodney in The Katrina Comedy Fest, netted the cast a Best Ensemble Sage Award from ArtsInLA. He has also been seen as Wynchell in the world premiere of Moby Pomerance’s The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder and Frank in Charles Mee’s Summertime at The Boston Court Performing Arts Center, Giuseppe “The Florist” Givola in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for Classical Theatre Lab, Ftatateeta in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at the Lillian, Cheswick in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Rubicon in Ventura, Pete Dye in the world premiere of Stranger at the Bootleg (LA Weekly Award nomination), Shelly Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Egyptian Arena, the Witch of Capri in Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore at the Fountain, and Dr. Van Helsing in The House of Besarab at the Hollywood American Legion Theatre. As a writer, he has also been a frequent contributor to several national magazines and five of his plays have been produced in LA. His first, Surprise Surprise, for which he wrote the screenplay with director Jerry Turner, became a feature film with Travis playing opposite John Brotherton, Luke Eberl, Deborah Shelton and Mary Jo Catlett. His first novel, Waiting for Walk, was completed in 2005, put in a desk drawer, and the ever-slothful, ever-deluded, ever-entitled Travis can’t figure out why no one has magically found it yet and published the goddam thing. www.travismichaelholder.com