by Erin Daley~
Zombies are blowing up right now. These foul smelling, brain munching undead are everywhere in pop-culture from the recent action-comedy Zombieland to Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic 28 Days Later to the rehashing of Austen’s classic in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I swear, if the undead were sexier, there would be a Team Zombie to rival Edward and Jacob. Zombies are the triple threat of horror, humor and humanity and have a rich history as a vessel for whatever anxiety and fear is currently the rage. From Communism to consumerism, fear of the other to fear of ourselves, zombies tap into something deeply human and deeply troubling in our collective psyche. They embody the fear that morality and civilization are just fragile bandages holding back our primal, grotesques impulses. They represent that ultimately, the greatest thing we have to fear… is ourselves.
The Visceral Company tackled these flesh-loving moaners in their West Coast premiere of Scott T. Barsotti’s The Revenants. Visceral focuses on horror and the macabre, an underperformed genre that they hope to revive. I was so excited by the idea of this company and of the play, it seemed like it was really attacking and utilizing the unique elements of theater to create an innovative and effecting production. There was going to be blood, and gore and zombies…live, on stage! It was so bold and so creative, how could they lose? Unfortunately, the company failed to capitalize on the very elements upon which they founded themselves. What was billed as a gory, horror play was actually a dull and drawn out couch scene that failed to take advantage of its unique resources.
Directed by Dan Spurgeon (also Visceral’s co-founder and artistic director) the play centers around two couples who bunker down in a basement as the Zombie Apocalypse rages outside…well, inside as well. Two of their own, Rafael Zubizarreta, Jr. as Joe and Lara Fisher as Molly have been infected and are now of the legions of the brainless, devouring, undead. Their spouses, Carl Bradley Anderson as Gary and Ann Westcott as Karen can’t bring themselves to kill their transformed and deformed loved ones and so chain Joe and Molly to the basement wall as they try to survive the outbreak.
With this set-up, you know exactly what kind of themes and situations the play is working with. It’s the Twilight Zone staple of “people locked in a room” scenario, that explores humanity’s darker nature, uncovers hidden truths and discovers that what’s inside ourselves ends up being far more terrifying than whatever threat is looming outside. The script just sets the scene for these themes to be explored but then does nothing to develop them. They just kind of hang there, taunting the audience with a sense of meaning and depth. Instead, the characters have innocuous small talk about Poptarts while their undead spouses gnash their teeth in a corner.
This is actually one of the main problems with the structure of the show. Having the zombies on stage for the entire duration of the play anesthetizes us to them. Instead of terrifying us, they become ineffective novelties, just shuffling around the stage. Because we continually have to deal with them, they become annoying and boring.
Overall, the script is meandering, tedious and again, fails to utilize the unique situation and genre. Everything is laid out in the first 5 minutes, there’s nowhere to go. Nothing really happens in the play, the single conflict could have been played out in 5 minutes but instead was stretched through the entire script. Additionally the characters are two-dimensional and seem fairly unfazed by “the end of the world as they know it”. Taken by itself, the script reminds you of one of those late night, cheesy horror movies, the ones you love to groan at. Actually, if the production embraced the campy B-horror movie vibe that the script and genre seems to give off, it would have made for a hilarious, creative and inventive horror play.
Justin and Melissa Meyer’s special effects and make-up nicely played into the “gore for the sake of gore” sentiment that often accompanies horror films. People love being grossed out and the FX team gave the audience plenty of opportunities with oozing wounds, deteriorating skin and blood in all its forms. Maybe it’s just me and my own morbidity, but they could have gone even further.
John Santo and Dan Spurgeon’s opening audio program was one element of the play that felt like it understood and utilized the genre, creating a spooky and uneasy atmosphere as what the audience thought was house music morphed into a radio show broadcasting the Zombie Apocalypse live. The story is told brilliantly as breaking news reports interrupt a pop music program, with news of gas explosions and fires as the city descends into chaos. As the contagion and destruction spreads, we can hear the radio DJ’s and production team’s growing terror as they try to face of a predator they don’t know. We hear a wavering bravery in the announcer’s voice as ominous pounding and groaning crescendo around the studio…and then the signal cuts out. The opening adhered to a primary rule of horror, anticipation of what we can’t see is far more terrifying than what we can. Our imaginations will get the best of us every time.
Horror by it’s very nature is an exploitative genre. It preys on our fears and anxieties to get a rise from us. That’s why people go to horror films, because they want to scream, they want to be disgusted and they want to have a cathartic, gut reaction. I hope that in future productions, The Visceral Company embraces this truth and pushes the limits of both the horror genre and the theatrical experience into something truly innovative.
THE REVENANTS plays on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 pm through March 19, 2011
The Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center is located at 11006 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, CA.
Tickets are $20 in advance at http://thevisceralcompany.com/ and $25 at the door