Pride and Prejudice and Zombies started a trend. Combine high-brow public domain classics with low-brow popular culture. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Henry VIII: Wolfman, it’s astounding that we haven’t seen Shakespeare in Lovecraft yet. The first time this happened, it was a clever idea for a parody, but this gag has become a whole genre unto itself, and it grows less amusing with each new incarnation. Much like a zombie plague, it just keeps infecting new subjects, and now Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers are the latest victims.
This gag actually predates Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by a couple of years, with the 2007 Twelfth Night of The Living Dead, a live stage show that is based entirely around one joke “It is Shakespeare, and there are zombies”. The new play R & J & Z continues beating that undead horse by adding zombies to Romeo and Juliet.
The playwright’s note in the program says the idea seemed like a natural fit, and she’s right. In Shakespeare’s story, Juliet returns from apparent death thanks to a mysterious potion. Romeo also has dealings with a shady apothecary, and a pivotal moment in the plot land is centered on a mysterious plague. So why not just pick up at the end of Act V and have the star-crossed lovers return from the dead and munch on the rest of the cast?
As such, it is essentially a sequel to Romeo and Juliet. This immediately causes it to run into a few problems. Foremost is that the last scene of Romeo and Juliet is one of greatest moments in dramatic history, so this parody has nowhere to go but down after the first few minutes.
The Playwright (Melody Bates) tries to subvert some of Shakespeare’s story, namely questioning how the doomed lovers would react upon learning that their suicides were a wee bit too hasty. There is also a funny scene where Romeo (Matt Huley) suspects that Juliet (Melody Bates) is about to betray him with Mercutio J. Stephen Brantley). A brilliant, understated, gag is that Juliet’s “Happy Dagger” remains sticking out of her chest for almost the entire show.
A few new characters are added into the mix. The original play had a one-line reference to “The Searchers” who helped prevent the spread of disease from town to town. In this sequel, it is revealed that The Searchers are, in fact, a secret order of monster hunters. Two of them pop up and help provide exposition about the newly arrived zombies, although these characters contribute little that isn’t explained elsewhere. They serve more to complicate the plot than streamline it.
Because this show essentially has one joke, it grows less funny over its two-hour running time. The script and the Director (Joan Jubett) deliberately add in drama and horror to compensate. Often the serious scenes end up working better than the comedy. Bates has created an elaborate back story for the Apothecary who briefly appears in one scene of Shakespeare’s play, and only had four lines. In the sequel, he returns (Played by Rachel Benbow Murdy) as the primary antagonist. He has a terrific villain speech about his evil plot to create an army of zombies, and Murdy’s performance, combined with her disfiguring make up makes it extra-creepy.
The show has been produced before, but many aspects of this production are over ambitious. The staged combat is clunky. Glaringly fake arms telegraph the fact they will soon be chopped off. Most disappointing is a climactic fight against the zombie horde. This involves a scene where the zombies are sprayed with blood, but the prop used to spray the blood only produces a faint red mist that is nearly imperceptible to most of the audience. Tom Lee’s set design is excellent, though, as is the special effects make up by Stephanie Cox-Williams.
This exact same take on the Classic Lit /Pop Culture mash-up has been done many times before, and even the idea of putting a “splatstick” comedy on a live stage is no longer novel, with Evil Dead: The Musical and Re-Animator: The Musical both having multiple incarnations.
R&J&Z is clearly an effort to do a more thoughtful and literate take on its hacky premise, but it is still just one more example of an idea that has long since grown stale. R&J&Z is playing through April 18th at the New Ohio Theater in the West Village. Tickets and more are available at www.rjztheplay.com.