Review of Qui Nguyen's 'Living Dead in Denmark' at Rorschach Theatre

Zombies surround Ophelia (Amy Quiggins) in
Zombies surround Ophelia (Amy Quiggins) in "Living Dead in Denmark," which fleshes out some of the Bard's darker material. (By Colin Hovde)
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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Perhaps during some bland Shakespearean performance, your thoughts have wandered to this: Which of the Bard's suicidal women is best equipped to thrive in a zombie-filled dystopia?

If so, behold playwright Qui Nguyen's "Living Dead in Denmark," in which Lady Macbeth (of course!) tears through the bleak landscape, swearing like a rapper while she's at it. Nguyen also bends Ophelia and Juliet to his will in this silly gore-fest, turning Shakespeare's broken teenage flowers into foul-mouthed Goth warriors, kickboxing and swinging heavy swords as they hack away at flesh-eating zombies.

Obviously, this is a play with a serious case of movie envy. Brain-splatter schlock and martial arts dust-ups are far greater influences than Shakespeare, despite a plot that brings together characters from an unlikely range of the much-studied plays (including Puck and Titania from "A Midsummer Night's Dream"). A James Bond spoof opens the second act, and the lively actors have been asked to memorize roughly equal amounts of crude gangsta dialogue and elaborate fight moves (kick! drop! roll! bite!).

It's best to just go with it, then, as the folks at Rorschach Theatre have a bit of summer fun, even if they're giving Nguyen's play a far more lavish treatment than it needs (or deserves). The natural habitat of "Living Dead" would seem to be a cheap, late-night venue serving beer in plastic cups, but director and fight choreographer Casey Kaleba has resources aplenty at his fingertips in Georgetown University's handsome Gonda Theatre.

For the most part, he takes advantage. Actors scramble briskly across a smart mash-up of ramps and preen fashionably in Debra Kim Sivigny's leather and lace costumes, while body parts crunch and squish ickily in Matthew M. Nielson's nicely layered sound design. There's no telling who gets credit for the disgusting bits of gore as zombies begin to feast, but it's the kind of lovingly detailed gross-out that gets the revolted laughter that Nguyen courts.

Nguyen's invention is limited, though, and the gag wears thin as the three Shakespearean women battle the evil Hamlet's hordes of gruesome undead. (Yes, Hamlet's a bad guy, though naturally there is some philosophical debate about that.) What passes for a huge second-act plot twist is actually the story's only logical premise, and the campy romance that springs up between Katie Atkinson's fierce Lady Macbeth and Megan Reichelt's amusingly aggressive Juliet (whom Nguyen models blatantly on Scooby Doo's Velma) smacks of desperation.

Too bad Nguyen's raw material isn't weirder or wittier; it has the feel -- very odd in the theater -- of straight-to-DVD. A couple of quirky musical interludes nearly stop the show dead (the actors can't sing, which kills the joke), but at least Ben Cunis arrives like a superhero to put real kick in the finish. Cunis is a vet of Synetic Theatre, the local experts in movement-based drama, and his Fortinbras is pure muscle on the battlefield -- meat, as it were, on "Living Dead's" brittle bones.

Living Dead in Denmark, by Qui Nguyen. Directed by Casey Kaleba. Scenic design, Robbie Hayes; lighting design, Brian S. Allard. With Amy Quiggins, Tony Bullock, Andres Talero, Adrienne Nelson, Danny Rivera, Sarah Taurchini, Scott McCormick, Blair Bowers, and Eddie Walsh. About two hours. Through Aug. 23 at the Davis Center, 37th and O St. NW. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit

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