Tuesday, October 28, 2014

theatre review NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Theater Works, Oct. 17

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway click here.
Zane Reisert, Taylor Raine Updegraff, Lorraine Barker, Tommy Cimato and Disney Girkin 

George Romero's classic 1968 horror film Night of the Living Dead may not have been the first to feature humans fending off a slew of zombies, but it definitely struck a chord in the terrified hearts of moviegoers. The first time I saw the film was in the late '70s when it was shown on a college campus in the town I lived in. The screams and fear that the film roused from the audience was intense. While Romero's film resulted in numerous successful imitations, including Romero's own sequels to the film and a couple of modern remakes, it is probably the hit TV show "The Walking Dead" that is keeping the zombie craze alive today. So, it's no surprise that Theater Works in Peoria's YouthWorks group is presenting the dramatized version of Romero's film for their October offering. While it lacks a bit of focus, it is a fun frolic with a few scary moments and a young cast that relishes bringing the tale to life.

Lori Allen Ohm's adaption is fairly faithful to the cult classic film, set in a small town in Pennsylvania in 1968. The story begins in a cemetery where Johnny and his sister Barbara are placing a wreath on their father's grave. Johnny jokes with his sister that the ghouls are "coming to get you" and before you know it, one does, though it gets Johnny and forces Barbara to flee to a nearby farmhouse to hide. There she discovers Ben, who is also hiding and quite good at killing zombies with his shotgun, as well as a family and young couple who are holed up in the basement. Together they successfully fight off several of the undead after boarding up the doors and windows of the house. They also find a radio and TV where we learn that a radioactive meteor has crashed nearby and the high radiation levels have reanimated the dead, bringing them to life, and they are now killing and feeding off the living. We know it's only a matter of time before the zombies will find a way in and our small group will be reduced in size.

The young cast are all having a lot of fun with their characters. As Ben, Taylor Raine Updegraff does a fine job of portraying basically the only sane person while everyone around him seems to either be in shock, going crazy, or on a power trip. The part of Barbara is a somewhat challenging role, as she has to sit quietly onstage for most of the play in shock over her brother's attack. Lorraine Barker's confused looks and vocal outbursts actively convey the blow that the experience caused Barbara. Zane Reisert is stern and straightforward as Harry Cooper, a man trying to protect his wife and daughter. Reisert achieves the appropriate sense of frustration as Harry doubts everyone and always has to be the one who is right. The rest of the ensemble cast do well in their parts as do the slew of zombies that pop up throughout, including several that get very close to the audience.

While director Layne Racowsky is to be commended for drawing serious portrayals from the actors, with only a couple going a little too far over the top, she unfortunately makes a couple of missteps with the staging. Presented as an almost immersive experience, with the action taking place in front, around, and even in the middle of the audience, there are a few moments, especially one that happens on the floor of the aisle in the middle of the large seating area, that some audience members may completely miss. I blame most of this confusion on the decision to have so many zombies throughout the entire play, even during some of the important dialogue scenes, which pulls us away and makes it unclear as to where we should focus our attention. We never get the sense, as in the film, that there is at first just a handful of zombies outside the house that continues to grow and grow to dozens. That shock and realization that the zombies aren't going away is virtually lost.

However, Racowsky is successful in staging the quiet moments in the house with Barbara and Ben as well as the confrontations Ben has with Harry. She is also effective in using various areas of the auditorium to stage the numerous TV broadcasts, especially when partnered with Mollie Flanagan's perfect lighting design that instinctively instructs us where to look. Also, there are several moments of humor and Racowsky and her cast do a fine job in making them pop. In one scene, a TV news reporter asks the County Sheriff (Isle Reisert) if the zombies are slow moving. "Yeah," the sheriff replies, with perfect deadpan delivery, "they're dead." Racowsky also incorporates a funny curtain call with the actors still in character.

Set designer Brett Aiken's whitewashed monochromatic set is beautiful and, while it is fairly minimal, it ties perfectly into the black and white film. Flanagan's lighting is superb, especially when combined with Marcus Myler's sound design. Together they create vivid imagery of explosions and fires outside of the house. Myler's use of the sound of a heart beating and dripping water in the cellar scenes is also quite effective. Make-up designer DeAndrea Vaughn does a masterful job creating zombies in various shades of decay, with plenty of gore and blood on their faces, appendages and clothing. Kathi Miller and Brenda Moulder's monotone costume designs work well with the black and white set, with just a few pieces of clothing that have color in them.

Compared to the film, there is minimal gore in the play, so it works well for younger audience members who might not be quite ready to experience the film. While Theater Works' production ofNight of the Living Dead could be scarier and spookier with a little more clarity, it still amounts to a fun, frivolous campy time with chills and a few laughs, a capable teenage cast, and highly inventive creative elements.

Night of the Living Dead runs through November 2nd, 2014, at Theater Works at 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at theaterworks.org/ or by calling 623 815-7930

Photo: Moran Imaging / Theater Works

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