Wednesday, April 15, 2015

This mix of Shakespeare and zombies staggers toward the end

Different breeds of supernatural nemeses surge and ebb in popular culture. Aliens, ghosts and, most recently, vampires have each enjoyed waves of books, movies and television shows that have now receded from their peaks. 
The epidemic of zombie-themed entertainment, however, has proven particularly infectious, morphing like a drug-resistant virus from the clunky stuff of B-grade horror flicks to cult cinema franchises to societal analysis. We’ve seen zombie politicians, zombie lovers, zombie strippers and -- coming soon to a theater near you -- a zombie moose. Zombie lit has been applied to the bones of giants like Jane Austen and Jean-Paul Sartre. 
In “William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead: A True and Accurate Account of the 1599 Zombie Plague,” now being presented in a handsome production by the University of Alaska Anchorage Department of Theatre and Dance, playwright John Heimbuch tries to marry the undead with the immortal. 
“Land of the Dead” takes place in the hours after Shakespeare (Alex Albrecht) and his partner Richard Burbage (Malcolm Kuntz) inaugurate their new Globe Theatre with the bard’s latest play, “Henry V.” Will Kemp (Matt Fernandez) crashes the finale. Kemp, who created the part of Falstaff in earlier plays, is upset that he’s been written out of the sequel, killed off by the playwright. Shakespeare is angry because he could never follow the script and furious that he’s invited himself onto the stage; but the crowd adores his buffoonery.
The cast takes off for an after-party, leaving Shakespeare with the sharp-tongued costumer, Kate (Emily Pratt) and the apprentice, John (Matthew Meyer), who’s stuck in a bodice and a dress he can’t undo himself. Enter Francis Bacon (Jake Beauvais), out of favor with Queen Elizabeth I and hoping to get back on her good side by having Shakespeare produce a new play around the Falstaff character. Shakespeare resists. Aside from his issues with Kemp, how can he honestly bring a character back from the dead?
The cast comes stumbling back into the Globe. A brawl at the tavern has turned into something else, masses of people going mad, London ablaze, the bridge fallen down. The queen herself (Chloe Akers) arrives with the remnants of her court, her spymaster Robert Cecil (Kirby Hutchings) and advisor John Dee (Harry Russo) to take shelter behind the stout walls of the new theater. 
As chaos howls outside and the survivors inevitably succumb to the “affliction,” the matter of the new Falstaff play comes up. The queen loves the idea, and Shakespeare is forced to go along with Bacon’s presumptuous appropriation of his name and craft. All of this makes the first act hilarious, a fast-paced, witty clash of personalities full of puns and zinger references to Shakespeare plays. The preview audience caught a lot of them and laughed repeatedly.
The second act began in much the same vein but, in the long final scene, began to drag like a one-legged “walker.” Talk takes over from development, though there is, of course, intense battling against the afflicted and even against other survivors as temper and terror take over from reason. 
Much of the final third of the play went into talky discussions of theater perhaps best conducted in a class on aesthetics. The fun level went way down, as did the laughter. As zombie comedies go (and “Land of the Dead” may not technically be a comedy), this was no “At Home With the Clarks,” seen at Anchorage Community Theatre in 2013. In that play, author Rand Higbee dealt with the zombie apocalypse in a way that kept the tension cranked up while remaining comedic throughout. “Clarks” ended with a pop and a twist that one didn’t see coming.
Heimbuch, however, doesn’t seem to know what to do with his material once he’d laid it out. The opportunities were there, in the arguments between Bacon and Dee, for instance. The latter is obsessed with the mystical but knows his math; Bacon is pragmatic and logical but thinks Dee’s arithmetic is superstition. Together they have figured out what’s going on and might, with a flash of imagination, be able to stop the plague. Heimbuch goes a different way. The play’s grind-it-out resolution felt unworthy of its premise. 
Unless the premise is, as the title suggests, that theater in 2015 is among the walking dead of the arts. Heimbuch’s Shakespeare seems to admit as much, doubting that his work will last 100 years, insisting that his plays are “written for the amusement of my friends, not for the ages,” and dismissing the idea of reviving “Richard III” with the quip, “Some plays once done should stay dead.” It that’s the message, whether ironic or serious, it doesn’t strike with much authenticity or persuasiveness.
That said, the acting on preview night was very good, and director Tom Skore kept the visual pacing consistently intriguing. The problems with the finale were not due to the players, direction or staging but to the script. The first act of “Land of the Dead” is well worth the price of admission whether you’re a fan of Shakespeare or zombie lore or both.
There’s another reason to go. It will be your last chance to see Daniel Glen Carlgren’s impressive two-story Tudor-style set that has been used to excellent effect, with adjustments, for three consecutive plays this season, including “Twelfth Night” and “Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead” prior to the current show.
The playbill announces the UAA lineup for next season. The department will present the collaborative “44 Plays for 44 Presidents,” opening Oct. 2; “Marie Antoinette” by David Adimi, opening Nov. 20; Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” opening Feb. 26; and “Stalking the Bogeyman,” based on a true story by Anchorage’s David Holthouse and previously presented to good reviews in New York, opening April 1. 
“William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead: A True and Accurate Account of the 1599 Zombie Plague” will be presented at UAA’s Mainstage Theatre at 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through April 26. Tickets are available at or by calling 786-4849

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