In 'Living Dead in Denmark,' Zombies Breathe New Life Into Shakespeare

(Jenny Mcconnell Frederick)
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By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009

Rorschach Theatre's "Living Dead in Denmark" features as its heroine a resurrected Ophelia. Yes, that Ophelia, the melancholy Dane's drowned love interest from Shakespeare's tragic play. Still, the production is no "Hamlet" sequel.

Rather, it's a mash-up of the Bard, a comic book adventure, kung fu movies . . . and zombies. Coming to the aid of Ophelia (Amy Quiggins) in her battle against the army of the undead that has taken over Elsinore in playwright Qui Nguyen's pop-cultural pastiche are two of Shakespeare's best-loved (and deadest) female characters from other plays: Juliet (Megan Reichelt) and Lady Macbeth (Katie Atkinson).

The genesis of the play was straightforward enough. At least according to Nguyen, a self-described "geek playwright" with an "impatient mind" who co-founded the Vampire Cowboys, a New York-based theater company specializing in spoofs of such action genres as blaxploitation and samurai movies.

"I had this idea for doing a behind-the-scenes action-adventure story of 'Hamlet,' where Ophelia didn't actually die," Nguyen says. "She fakes her death and would track down Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and kill them before they kill Hamlet." An idle joke -- about Ophelia running into the ghost of Hamlet's father, and finding him solid, because, duh, he's a walking corpse -- led Nguyen's scenic designer to suggest making the whole play about zombies. "Oh, that is funny," Nguyen remembers thinking. "I scrapped the script, and that ended up being what became 'Living Dead in Denmark.' "

Assisted by Chuck Varga -- best known for his role as the "Sexecutioner" in the theatrical metal band GWAR, and bringing lots of expertise when it came to the use of stage blood and pressurized tanks -- Nguyen created what he describes as a gore-drenched, "in-your-face, action-adventure comedy."

All of which doesn't make life easy for Casey Kaleba, the Washington-based stage-combat expert and theatrical-fight director who's overseeing Rorschach's version, an unusually large production for a company that's mainly known for mounting, as Kaleba puts it, "smaller pieces in smaller spaces."

"The script at one point calls for a character to be beheaded, and the stage direction is, 'Blood flows for exactly 45 seconds,' " says Kaleba, pausing to let the awesome duration -- and the technical challenge it presents -- sink in. But he's not about to let either one daunt him. "From a technical standpoint," he says, "that is what the playwright has written. We are going to honor that as best we can."

How exactly, Kaleba won't say. He is quick to note that audience members need not fear for their clothes. "There's no splash zone," he says. "We're going to keep it messy on stage and clean in the audience."

But if Kaleba feels an obligation to Nguyen's sometimes over-the-top stage directions, he feels another, equally strong pull as well. Yes, he says, there's lots of "martial arts zombie action. But we also want to stay true to the source material."

"We know our Shakespeare in this town," he continues, citing the breadth and depth of local Shakespeare productions by such companies as the Folger Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Synetic Theater and the Washington Shakespeare Company. To satisfy that crowd, he knows his cast will need to do more than hack off a few limbs and tell some funny jokes.

No problem, says Kaleba, who believes there's as much meat to the show as blood. Even, perhaps, a feminist subtext. "One of the things Qui has done in this play is to give these characters -- in a kind of postmodern and pop-culture and kung fu way -- he's given a voice back to a lot of characters that Shakespeare silenced. Is it a sequel to 'Hamlet'? Absolutely not. Is it a philosophical diatribe on what could have happened in Shakespeare? Not really."

So what is it exactly? "It's a fairly smart meditation on what it means to be oneself," he says, "and what it means to be a hero."

All that, and zombies, too?

Okay, Kaleba admits, the undead are still the best part of the show. All too often, he explains, there's the temptation for theater professionals to take themselves a little too seriously. "We're exploring Chekhov, and we're in dark corners of the human soul. We're having very long conversations about betrayal and adultery and murder and people doing not nice things to each other. Every once in a while, it's really nice to work on a production where you're laughing through every rehearsal."

Living Dead in Denmark Georgetown University's Gonda Theatre, 37th and O streets NW. 800-494-8497. Through Aug. 23; pay-what-you-can preview tickets available at the door Friday and Saturday. $13.50-$21.50.

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