PROVO – Directed by renowned Utah playwright Eric Samuelsen, Shakespeare’s classic comedy receives a dramatic retelling at the Covey Center for the Arts, just in time for Halloween.
Much Ado About Zombies, based on Shakespeare’s famous Much Ado About Nothing, is a new play written by Provo’s own Becky Baker. This adaptation melds Shakespeare’s language and well-known characters with zombies and steampunk, making it quite the transformation. Set in an imagined past in Italy, the play is not bounded by history or reality. Zombies become characters and the science fiction of a steampunk world is all encompassing.
Much Ado About Zombies does in fact stay true to the original story, even with all the additions. The focus is still on the four lovers, Beatrice and Benedick, and Hero and Claudio. Hero and Claudio easily make the decision to be wed, while Beatrice and Benedick struggle to reveal their feelings to each other. Because of circumstance and much trickery, conflict ensues between the couples, but in the end, everyone is joyous and celebrate by dancing. Baker’s new script demonstrated this plot naturally and understandably. While most of the language is pulled from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, other lines and verses are used from some of Shakespeare’s’ other works, with some modern vernacular interspersed throughout. I felt this mixture came together quite seamlessly to create a modern and creative re-telling. The way in which the zombies were worked into the script was also well done. Being familiar with Much Ado About Nothing, it was clear that in the beginning, the citizens of the town arrive home from the war as zombies. At this point, most are killed, but some survive and end up living and interacting with the townspeople. This is very confusing at first, but as the play progresses, I saw a capacity for the zombies to become humanized again, and therefore accept them as members of the society.
The most impressive aspect of this production was certainly the design elements. Visually, the show is spectacular. Set designer Daniel James, was able to bring the steampunk world to life with his metallic gear filled set. The proscenium arch was covered with a collection of metal pipes and pieces, which included spinning gears. There was also a great deal of fog produced on stage. Both of these elements emphasized the notion of a world powered by steam, before the advent of modern technology. The costumes, designed by Lisa Kuhni, were equally impressive with all of the actors looking appropriate for their roles. Makeup designer Laryne Lawson created fantastic makeup to match the costumes. The zombies appeared realistic, while not having utilized too much gore. This was a great choice, in that the focus of the play could still remain on the original storyline.
The eccentric and imposing sound design (uncredited) played an integral part in bringing the world to life, along with the set design. The techno/electronic mixes seemed to fit perfectly into the specific world being created. Lastly, Pam Davis’s lighting design brought a suitable mood to the production and created an atmosphere in which steampunk and zombies could easily exist. Rarely do all design elements come together so perfectly in a non-professional production. All of these elements helped to pull me into the fantasy, making it that much more believable.
While the acting in the production was somewhat mediocre, the definite standout of the piece was Barrett Ogden (playing Benedick). Ogden had a wonderful grasp on classical acting technique, enticing me with his crisp speech and broad gestures. His acting was able to clearly emphasize his feelings and motivations, causing me to form the strongest connection to him. I was also pleased to see his very clever switch to a commedia dell’arte style while wearing a mask during the ball scene. Ogden and Ashley Lammi (as Beatrice) emanated a great chemistry together as they tried to confess their love to each other. The scene where Beatrice asks Benedick to kill Claudio (played by Carter Peterson) is particularly powerful. Because of their great chemistry and skilled acting, I could see each character truly struggle. Peterson’s performance was also well done, particularly his tremendous portrayal of transformation his character experiences throughout the play. Another actor I thought was especially talented was Kristen Perkins as Conrad. There is a certain skill that is required when performing classical works such as Shakespeare, and much like Ogden, Perkins exemplified this skill very well, and I greatly enjoyed her character.
Most of this production came together well, though there were a few shortcomings. While Samuelsen succeeded in many ways, there were moments in the production that did not reflect the rest of the show. The two biggest of these were when Benedick asks the audience to borrow a cell phone, and the zombie rock band. Both of these moments were humorous, but nonsensical and out of place in Shakespeare’s world or a steampunk setting. Ogden skipped off stage with the cell phone, never to bring it up again. And zombie rock song was not set up with any other preceding scenes in order for it to make sense within the world. Also, there seemed to be an excessive amount of sexual innuendo that was too overtly expressed. Some quips and gestures provided humor, but in expressing the same joke quite blatantly over and over again, it becomes flat and repetitious.
Despite the few imperfections I have mentioned, this production is generally a success. If you enjoy Shakespeare, zombies, and/or steampunk, this innovative play is the perfect show for you. Given the spookiness zombies provide, this show is a great date night or friendly activity for the Halloween season that is upon us.