by Ed Malin · April 7, 2015
Well, sleeping-dead looked real enough to me.
So says Romeo to Juliet by way of an explanation for his suicide over her inanimate body. Romeo says this after he, Juliet, Paris, Tybalt and other beloved casualties of Shakespeare’s classic suddenly rise from the dead. If you sought out the new Hard Sparks production of R & J & Z (Romeo and Juliet and Zombies) directed by Joan Jubett, you may have expected something along these lines, and you will get liberating questions about the meaning of life, much entertainment and fake blood (of which quite a lot is spilled on Melody Bates, the playwright/Juliet).
The Montagues and the Capulets may not have invented gang warfare, but their feuds have regularly led long-standing acquaintances to kill each other in the street. Romeo (Matt Hurley) and Juliet (Melody Bates) secretly fell in love and wed with the help of Friar Lawrence (Warren Jackson), but since the two lovers died, societal right and wrong remained clearly defined. How complicated for everyone involved when those who slew each other suddenly revive and have to talk about their actions. Speaking of complicated, Verona now has vigilante Searchers (Margi Sharp Douglas and Caitlin Johnson) who are aware that corpses sometimes rise again. In times of plague, there are lots of dead who, they say, ought to stay dead. We also know that Romeo paid a pale Apothecary (Rachel Murdy) for the poison that was supposed to kill him but in fact made him undead. It is revealed that the Apothecary is the rogue former apprentice of Friar Lawrence.
As reanimated Lady Capulet (Elizabeth Bell) nibbles on a leg-of-human and the rest of Verona is on alert against the undead. Romeo, Juliet, Tybalt (Per Janson) and Paris (Blaze Mancillas) become allies. Most of the other undead cannot speak or think, so why are the four friends different? As they ponder, they realize “We are our choices and we pay their price.” Now that they have another chance, do they have to live and love the same way as before? The Apothecary, who is keeping the undead Mercutio (J. Stephen Brantley) as a ghastly servant, has an unspeakable hostile takeover plan involving a corrupt Searcher. Mercutio regains his faculties and joins the good, dead guys. Searcher fights Searcher. Will it be today Verona, tomorrow Mantua, next week the world? I don’t want to give too much away, but think of a priest battling a sorcerer and imagine Mace Windu versus Chancellor Palpatine.
While Peter Brook warned of the pitfalls of “Deadly Theatre”, watching these dead is not boring. From the last line of Shakespeare’s text (which is interrupted by a zombie attack) the humor and humanity shine through. The story of two lovers who were too good for this world (see also any Japanese love suicide play) changes into a call to bring love into this world. The sword skills of the fabulous ensemble, especially the Searchers (thanks to Dan Renkin, Fight Director) might have you screaming “kill him again”, but it’s all very edifying. Stephanie Cox Williams’s blood work is exemplary, making one wonder how Kate Mincer’s charming costumes get cleaned for the next performance. Tom Lee has designed many creepy sets, from crypt to hovel to monk’s cell, which look more grim under Barbara Samuels’s lighting. And for that horror film experience, there’s Mark Van Hare’s surprise-there’s-a-dead-hand-coming-through-the-window sound effects.