Update: I should have mentioned in the following review that, under a one-time arrangement with the Coterie, I attended the last preview rather than the traditional opening night. After this review ran, the Coterie's artistic director wrote to say that, by opening night, the lack of "resistance" that I had complained about in the stabbing scenes had been addressed. Now, reportedly, the zombie killing has greater impact.
Walking out of the theater this weekend, after watching the dead rise, shamble and feast enjoyably upon the living for some 75 minutes, a friend who is a zombie purist carped, "They could at least have had them stabbing a watermelon or something."
Most of the killings in the Coterie Theatre's second-annual PG-13ish Night of the Living Dead revival take place behind a couch, just out of view. The actors stab with appropriate fury, but their thrusts meet no resistance, and there's never the sickening crunch that we hear in movie killings. Despite the many virtues of this slow-burning zombiethon, my friend had a point: When a show dares for the visceral, the details matter. Chunks of fruit pulp aren't a grace note — they're part of what's promised by a title like Night of the Living Dead.
I hate comparing theater with film, but theater invites it — and suffers — in this case. Live theater can do thousands of things better than film, but violence is rarely one of them. Here, the show is one uninterrupted take, and the phoniness of the violence is a frequent distraction. Yes, we always know that movie violence is a trick, but when the tricks are effective, we play along. Except for an impressive attack a couple of minutes in and a bang-up ending, we spend too much of this Night of the Living Dead excusing the violence instead of recoiling from it. The end is the show's most effective moment, mostly because Director Ron Megee stages it with strobes and slow-motion movement, smartly aping the editing techniques of film. Suddenly, we feel the fruit pulp even where there is none.
Perhaps to make up for the difficulty of competing with film on its own gory turf, Megee and the Coterie lavish this production with a coolness that's impossible in movie houses. Throughout the show, a "zombie guitarist" stalks the stage and audience. Cody Wyoming and Scott Hobart alternate nights in the role. I have found Hobart's work the most exciting in the show: Bursts from his electric guitar unsettle us, his percussive thrumming heightens the tension, and his squalls of feedback enliven the dead.
In his dusty suit and chewed-corpse make-up, Hobart also makes a stellar zombie. He fixes his face in a vacant, hungry stare and shuffles about. Nearly 20 other undead join him in the haunting, each in inventive costumes revealing both a pre-death character and how that character croaked. At first, Megee deploys them for maximum impact. We see them staggering out from the wings, slowly approaching the small cast of survivors, who tend not to notice danger until it grabs them by the throat. There's a lively tension here that's foreign to any other medium.
Mostly, Megee plays the material straight, coaxing serious B-movie performances from his cast. As death cinches these characters, they're shouty and combative and not particularly memorable. I liked Pete Weber as the oafish Tom and Rick Holton as a scheming father boiling in his own inadequacy. Like last year, Angela Cristanello is amusing and a bit touching as the catatonic Barbara.
Neither the characters nor the performances are jokes, and because the show takes the threat seriously, we do the same. The ugly, tragic ending hits hard, and the full-on punch line that follows it betrays the show's humans-are-the-real-monsters seriousness but serves a valuable function: It sends kids and parents home smiling. Maybe it'll bring them back next year, if this becomes a Halloween tradition.
But I'm not sure all of this is enough to win movie-mad kids over to theater. Too much of the show feels like theater trying to achieve movie-style thrills. Too many times, the zombies bat weakly at doors and windows only to retreat for no clear reason. Too many times, the humans stab at air. Megee and Hobart's set has too few walls to feel properly claustrophobic. An ill-conceived scene involves Molotov cocktails that we don't see, tossed from a second floor that we've heard about, in the general direction of what someone has alluded to as a truck. This results, somehow, in an offstage fireball suggested by a glow of orange and hard-to-decipher shouting. The Coterie Theatre has a grand history of inviting audiences to play along in the construction of wonders, but this is too much — we're asked to imagine a movie scene. A show like this should invest more fully in the marvels that are possible only on a stage.
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