On Sunday afternoon, my husband, The Gryphon, and I were invited to see a play with some friends. Of course, I simply had to go once I discovered the play was about Shakespeare and his company fighting zombies. To be more specific, William Shakespeare's Land of the Dead, written by John Heimbuch and performed by the Plays & Players company. As an extra bonus, Heimbuch would speak afterwards.
I went in with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. Initially, I expected little more than people in Elizabethan dress getting bit by shambling zombies. Instead, we were treated to a textured, multifaceted play with plenty of literary merit.
Photographer Klea Scharberg has some wonderful pics of the show on Flickr, if you'd like to see how it looked on-stage.
In addition to The Gryphon and I, attending were The Horror Film Buff and his wife, The Seamstress; The Giggler; The Green Man and his fiancee The Linguist; The Goth Grrl, and a woman I met at Faeriecon and also saw at a Halloween party but for whom I don't yet have a nickname.
As Heimbuch explained in the Q&A afterwards, he wrote the play in response to a suggestion at a party. Then, he'd spent several months researching Elizabethan times, Shakespeare's life, zombie movies and, of course, possible Shakespeare lines to borrow. He wrote the play primarily in iambic pentameter, just like Shakespeare's plays, with liberal use of borrowed lines. I spotted many from Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Taming of the Shrew. There were other references to Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, and the historical Henry plays.
Heimbuch also alludes to the modern debate about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, through a very witty subplot where Sir Francis Bacon tries to convince Shakespeare to put his name on a new play he's written, called Falstaff in Love, also known as The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The entire play takes place on one set, behind the scenes at the Globe Theater. This also pays homage to the Shakespearean form of staging, since elaborate scenery was not used in Elizabeth times. The play made creative use of different levels of the stage. For example, when two characters were debating whether they were really safe, barricaded in the Globe, you see a character on the upper level clearly succumbing to the Affliction.
The play is set in 1599, just after the Globe Theater opened with a production of Henry V. Some of the players go to a pub to celebrate. While there, they unfortunately encounter somebody who's Afflicted with the contagious disease that produces rage and a desire for blood. Sound familiar, zombie fans?
Of course, as soon as contagion comes into the theater, the audience knows the company is in danger. Queen Elizabeth also enters the theater with a skeleton crew, having just escaped across the river, fleeing ahead of a mass of desperate people. Despite the wise counsel of Bacon, who seems to have some understanding of the disease, several things inevitably go wrong so that the situation seems all but hopeless.
If you've never seen anybody fighting off zombies while speaking in iambic pentameter, you don't know what you're missing. It helped that the actors made the words come alive as naturally as if they were speaking in prose. In the Q&A afterwards, I asked the director, Bill Egan, his secret to balancing the demands of Shakespearean dialogue with action and comedy. He deferred to Daniel Student, whose portrayal of Shakespeare was brilliant, bringing him to life as a serious, thoughtful artist given to dry wit. Student said he looks for the truth in what he's saying. He said he also paid attention to audience reaction with regard to timing some of the funny lines.
The simple staging was well suited to the performance, and it never got boring, despite the confined space. Adding to the drama were the fascinating relationship between the characters, such as the competitive relationship between Shakespeare and Bacon (Paul McElwee), who is officious yet logical. Also entertaining is the relationship between Shakespeare and Will Kemp (Ryan Walter), a recently-fired dancer who had made the role of the rowdy, bacchanalian Falstaff famous. Walter portrays him as a gregarious, self-important actor who believes he can win anyone over through his charm and talent.
The special effects are fun, as well. It's not often that you go to a Shakespeare production where the first two rows are given sheets of plastic and warned to hold them up whenever they see someone who's Afflicted coming near them. As you might imagine, the production uses a great deal of artificial blood. It was amusing during the Q&A to watch one of the company members with a bucket, mopping up the fake blood while another woman cleaned fake blood off all the prop weapons.
The play is full of humor, based on Shakespearean references as well as zombie tropes, including using music from famous zombie films like Army of Darkness. Whether you're a horror fan, a Shakespearean scholar, or neither, there is plenty in this play to amuse and entertain.
In the Q&A period, audience members asked Heimbuch if he plans to publish the play and/or have it performed elsewhere. He said he's interested in both ideas but has had no offers yet. The play debuted in the Minnesota Fringe Festival, performed by the Walking Shadow Theater Company, with Heimbuch playing Shakespeare. More info, plus a YouTube video, are available at the Fringe site here.
Heimbuch also spoke to the current zombie zeitgeist. He said he has heard that zombie movies tend to thrive while Republicans are in office for some reason, while Democratic administrations seem to attract vampires. Seems like we're due for a vampire resurgence, then!
Afterwards, everyone but The Green Man, The Linguist and The Goth Grrl, walked to a nearby sports bar and had dinner. We got into a lively conversation over our meal, talking about what we liked about the play. Considering that I was probably the only true Shakespeare fan at the table, I can say that the play has something to interest everyone, because we all agreed we'd liked it.
The silliest ideas can lead to the most interesting works of art.