ZOMBIE TOWN – A DOCUMENTARY PLAY
By Tim Bauer
Directed by Lauren Caldwell
REVIEW by Tom Miller
In a review of a zombie play, there should either be absolutely no brain jokes, or otherwise, dozens of them. This reviewer unreservedly chooses the low road. This is not Beckett or Pinter. We want to see some zombies eat some Goddamn brains! And we want to see it in Haywood, Texas! Yes, many jokes are made at the expense of Texas stereotypes, but as Caldwell hails from Texas, you can be sure the disparagement will be treated with affection, humor, and will also be spot-on! And leave your brains at home, for all the right reasons. A veteran theatre goer of note offered the following summation: “It’s wonderful trash.” And indeed, Zombie Town is Grindhouse, John Waters, kitschy, campy, and in select moments, truly frightening. It is an inverse Midsummer Night’s Dream—the play within a play, set in a town’s community theatre with blood, brains, screams, and Slash (yes, a doppelgänger of Slash from the rock-n-roll band, Guns and Roses). I dare say this play, and to an extent Lauren Caldwell herself, are indicative of steampunk-meets-Rabelaisian—Rabelaisian means ‘bawdy’ if your brain recently got eaten. Yes there is language, yes there is sex. Don’t bring your 6 year old. But maybe bring your teen(s); these are the kids made this stuff up anyway. Caldwell takes reasonably good and funny material and jacks up the ‘cerebral matter’ with spectacle, music, hyperbolic staging, and a pack of zombies so fierce and freaky, they make the zombies of Thriller look like they belong in Mr. Rogers neighborhood.
Let’s talk about the cast. Each member of the ‘human’ cast takes on five roles with the exception of Logan Wolfe who takes on four [Slash is a big enough character to count for two] for a total of twenty-four completely realized characters. With lightning speed, they effortlessly switch between these characters, one after another, with subtle changes in headwear, sunglasses, couture, and the like (Properties by Jacob Foster, Stage Management by Amber Wilkerson). Different accents, tones, inflections, physical portrayals—they make it look so effortless, but this is real-deal theatre! This style is a natural for the always outstanding Matthew Lindsay, having prepared several Christmases with the seasonal multi-character two-person play, A Tuna Christmas. Likewise, multi-characterization is Christopher Swan’s specialty. We remember the genius of Mr. Swan on the Hippodrome stage in the one-person play, This Wonderful Life—a retelling of the film, It’s a Wonderful Life in which he portrayed every freakin’ character in the movie! The rest of the cast holds their own in presenting the same demands. Especially good is Michelle Bellaver and Josh Price, who seem to share a talent for embodying characters that are at once absurd and goofy, and yet possessive of sympathy, empathy, and endearment. We care about these souls. Yes, we want their brains eaten, but we care!
On to the zombies—the meat in the “brain-tatoes.” (Groans and moans!) Out-dancing Michael Jackson’s undead posse, these supremely iconic creatures hiss, scream, bleed, eat stuff off the trees, crawl, creep, and pop right out of the darkness just when you think they’re dead again. We learn you have to kill the brain to kill the creatures. And brains are killed with shovels, guns, two-by-fours, whatever is laying around when the shit hits the fan. The costumes by Marilyn A. Wall (with Zachary Ryan) are macabre, ghostly, dirty, and define each of these ghouls with their own unique personalities. Though they have only one line to remember, “Braaaaains!” they manage to be almost as fully fleshed out at their talking human counterparts through extreme physical performances. These zombies will lurk out of the shadows of a realistic fog-filled graveyard (Kent Barrett, scenic design, Michael A. Eaddy, technical director, and Robert P. Robins, lighting) and suddenly BANG! (Sound Design by Amanda Yanes) A rock song kicks in and you’ve got a zombie dance party from Hell (Choreography by Rick Rose). Annelih G.H. Hamilton, Joshua Hamilton, Nichole Hamilton (enough Hamiltons to eat all the brains in the theatre), Kenneth Smoak, and Marissa Toogood become a precision ensemble and grunt into some impressive step-dancing that was particularly remarked about in the positive both by preliminary word-of-mouth and post-show banter. These zombies can dance! Their make-up is beyond realistic (Makeup by Zackery Ryan), but with stylizations reminiscent of the best of Tim Burton mixed with old-school Herk Harvey flavor (the original zombie master, he of the cinematic Carnival of Souls [1962, not the dead-on-arrival remake.]) Altogether, the effect is so good, you can smell the decay as you snort your way from one laugh to the next. Yes, this play is funny.
To belabor the plot would do a disservice to the many surprise pleasures of this play. Suffice to say that in the shocking conclusion, the genius of Caldwell’s Halloween selection and how it relates to the magic of theatre is spectacularly revealed. Sometimes, we need to take a break from the grind of our lives, the terrors of our world, the pressures of our economy, and the frustration of Government lockdown. It’s Halloween! What better place to be than in a theatre full of brain-eating zombies and a nice group of young talented actors and crew members who will be terrorized, mauled, and eaten instead of you!
Outside the safety of the theatre, you and your gray matter will have to take your chances.