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A zombie plague on both your houses

July 16, 2014
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A zombie plague on both your houses Photo by Karen Galella

Opera House Arts goes gory with R&J&Z'

STONINGTON No matter whether you're a Shakespearean scholar or simply a regular consumer of pop culture, odds are good that you know a little something about 'Romeo & Juliet.' Star-crossed lovers, two families both alike in dignity, yada yada yada. You also know that pretty much everybody dies in the end.

But what if that wasn't actually the end?

That's the vision laid forth by playwright Melody Bates in her new play 'R&J&Z' that's 'Romeo & Juliet & Zombies' as directed by Joan Jubett for Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House. According to Bates, the tragic fifth act of 'R&J' isn't the end, but the beginning.

We watch as Romeo (Matt Hurley) kills Paris (J. Stephen Brantley) in the tomb and then kills himself to be with the presumed dead Juliet (Melody Bates), who wakes up only to discover that her love is lost, and so she takes her own life for real. Friar Lawrence (Peter Richards) comes in and does what he does best recap the action that we've already seen. The Capulets and Montagues then come together with a promise to put aside their eternal enmity at the behest of the Prince.

And then the dead rise and start eating people.

What follows is a zombie apocalypse, Verona-style. Two Searchers (Yvonne Roen; Caitlin Johnston) roam the countryside, seeking out carriers of the Plague. But when they start discovering empty graves, the Second Searcher starts to suspect that perhaps the End Times prophesied by their order are coming to pass. Friar Lawrence desperately seeks answers to this new affliction that has struck the land. He begins to suspect he knows who is behind it all and it's someone we have met before.

Meanwhile, Romeo and Juliet along with the previously slain Tybalt (Per Janson) have somehow retained their consciousness. They are still themselves, as opposed to the mindless undead eating machines that so many others have become. While the Searchers attempt to hunt them down, they strive desperately to understand what they have become and what will become of them.

And when an enslaved zombie Mercutio (Brantley) shows up to attack them, only to find himself shaking off the fog of mindlessness and joining his friends in their quest, it only gets more complicated. Soon, the Second Searcher begins to wonder about why these undead are different and the First Searcher proves to have ulterior motives of her own motives that involve the one whose dark machinations are the source of Verona's flesh-eating woes.

It's difficult to know what to expect when seeing a show such as this one. There are a number of different directions in which this concept could take you. What surprised me though in retrospect, it probably should not have was just how funny this script is. It's dark, sure people are being eaten, after all but the humor permeates the entire thing. Even the over-the-top gore (a tip of the cap to Stephanie Cox-Williams, who designed the effects) results in moments so shocking they're funny.

Bates has done admirable work in bringing this script to life, with a strong sense of the language anchoring the ludicrous goings-on to the Shakespearean foundation. The cadence of Shakespeare's verse is present throughout, with only the slightest of occasional lapses. Keeping that sense of language while still allowing the humor room to flow is an impressive feat. Bates has a deftness of phrase that is a joy to experience.

But even the most well-written words require voices to speak them. The actors are the ones that bring this story to life, the ones who manage to elicit the script's jocularity and ensure that all campiness is intentional. It's a daring choice, casting Bates in a central role in her own script, but it works; she has an inherent understanding of the goings-on that allows her Juliet a high degree of self-awareness. She's smart and funny; everything this character should be. Hurley's Romeo is wonderfully earnest; this is a guy who killed himself over the loss of a girl he'd known just a few days (a fact the script has some fun with); his romanticism informs everything he says and does in a most engaging way.

Roen and Johnston are polar opposites as the Searchers; Roen's dour superiority and Johnston's cautious enthusiasm make them an ideal onstage team. Each woman brings different strengths to the stage strengths that are well-met. Richards takes Friar Lawrence right up to the edge of buffoonery without ever quite allowing him to go over; it's a delicate and necessary balance. Janson as Tybalt and Brantley as Mercutio embrace the new directions of these classic characters while still maintaining and internal sense of the spirits of the original incarnations. And of course, Rachel Benbow Murdy is all cracked voice and cackles, splendidly sinister as the villain (who still will not be named here it's an early reveal, but a spoiler is a spoiler; you'll have to see it for yourself).

Director Jubett has assembled a first-rate ensemble, one capable of the juggling act that is marrying a Shakespearean classic with a current comedic sense. She has coaxed performances rife with both breadth and depth from her talented cast. The rest of the production team scenic designer Tom Lee, lighting designer Miranda Hardy, costume designer Kate Mincer, composer/sound designer Mark Van Hare and fight choreographer Dan Renkin comes together in presenting a unified vision of an alternate Verona darkened by the shadows of the undead.

'R&J&Z' is an unexpected marriage, a mash-up whose diverse pieces come together to create something new and different and wildly entertaining. It's a wonderful piece of work from Melody Bates whether you're a fan of the Bard, brains or both, there's something here for you.

('R&J&Z' will be running at the Stonington Opera House on July 18 and 20; their production of 'Romeo & Juliet' runs July 17 and 19. All shows are at 7 p.m.; for more information, visit their website at operahousearts.org.)

Last modified on Thursday, 17 July 2014 19:04

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