Shakespeare and Zombies

Sometime in the future or somewhere in the past, in the place where pop culture and legitimate literature meet, Qui Nguyen's Living Dead in Denmark is born. Under the direction of Robert Ross Parker, the play proves to be a highly entertaining, but ultimately uneven, full-out assault on Shakespeare in the form of B-movie madness and some seriously kick-ass stage combat. It is five years after the apocalypse. Mankind struggles to survive. Toxic waste litters the landscape, and zombies rule the night. A post-apocalyptic battle rages between two camps for supremacy. The human group is led by Hamlet's Fortinbras, and the zombies are ruled by Titania of A Midsummer Night's Dream and her reanimated lover, Hamlet. While Hamlet appears unstoppable with the help of his brain-hungry zombie army, Fortinbras has a secret weapon far more powerful.

Deep in his Danish lair, he has created the perfect fighting machines in the form of Macbeth's Lady Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet's Juliet, and Hamlet's Ophelia. It seems Fortinbras rescued the threesome from their respective suicide attempts, engineering them into an unlikely trio—think Charlie's Angels meets the Three Stooges, with fight moves that would make Buffy the Vampire Slayer jealous. These three unite to battle Hamlet's army of the undead.

Lady M (as she is called) and Juliet, with help from Hamlet's Horatio, convince the reluctant Ophelia to join their cause and save mankind. The estrogen is running high as the girls wield swords, throw knives, and kung-fu their way through a sea of zombie mutants. Everyone has a secret and no one can be trusted as the final battle looms on the horizon. Alliances shift, leading to the ultimate showdown between Fortinbras and Hamlet and forcing our heroine Ophelia to choose between love and duty.

Nguyen, coming off his critically acclaimed and haunting masterpiece Trial by Water at the Culture Project, shows off his silly side with his zombie-cum-Shakespearean parody. Nothing is spared in his assault on pop culture. Everything from Kill Bill and Brokeback Mountain to Paris Hilton and Snoop Dogg are gleefully skewered. Fortunately, Nguyen is also merciless in his attack on the Bard, using Shakespeare's own words against him and stripping away the pretense to reveal the often trite plot beneath the multisyllabic lines.

But Nguyen's riotous ability to spoof pop culture is also where the production breaks down. There are just too many inside jokes and clever references for him to sustain plot focus. He ultimately gets off message, abandoning his sharp characters and his inspired story for an unnecessary joke or another extended fight sequence. The production features dozens of scenes, many of which clock in at less than 60 seconds. Nguyen's plot structure, reminiscent of the modern sitcom with its setup, joke, and quick-cut construction, proves to be a challenge for Parker. Much of the play is mechanically boring, and Parker's stale staging becomes all too familiar with each passing scene.

The one exception is Marius Hanford's excellent fight direction. He approaches each of the finely detailed and riveting fight sequences as if he were choreographing a ballet. The result is an exhilarating ride that, although distracting from the plot, cannot be faulted for its precise execution or pure entertainment value.

Parker, however, does deserve credit for guiding his cast to outstanding performances. The entire cast of 10 excels, many in multiple roles, delivering joke after joke with bull's-eye precision. Maureen Sebastian is sexy and smart as the geek-chic Juliet. Melissa Paladino is all testosterone as the butch Lady M but gives Macbeth's take-no-prisoners wife a sensitive edge. Andrea Marie Smith is appropriately needy as Titania and nearly steals the show as she belts out a sexy torch song with her smoky, soaring voice.

Jason Liebman goths it up as the Prince of Denmark, playing him as a misunderstood monster with the soul of a tortured artist and the heart of a bad-boy rock star. As Horatio, Carlo Alban plays the hero full out, saving the girl in a swoon-worthy performance. Jason Schumacher takes on Fortinbras to hilarious effect, drawing on a rogue British accent and plodding about the stage as if he had just waltzed out of a bad James Bond movie.

Living Dead in Denmark revolves around Ophelia, from her rebirth in Fortinbras's lab to her final showdown with her savior and former lover. Amy Kim Waschke triumphantly brings this central character full circle. She imbues Ophelia with equal parts tough-girl bravado and lost confusion as she tries to make sense of the situation unfolding around her. Under Waschke's accomplished guidance, Ophelia's story remains grounded and compelling throughout.

Vampire Cowboys Theater Company's mission is to entertain by first engaging its audiences. It prides itself on keeping them on the edge of their seats, and with Living Dead in Denmark it achieves its goal. But not all audiences were brought up in an era of attention deficit disorder, and sometimes a good story goes a long way, especially one as good as this one. If Nguyen and Parker, Vampire Cowboys's co-artistic directors, had kept their focus more on substance and less on style, Living Dead in Denmark would be "can't miss" instead of just "should see."

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