By Melody Bates; Directed by Joan Jubett
Produced by Hard Sparks
Off Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 4.18.15
New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street
by Sarah Weber on 4.9.15
Matt Hurley and Melody Bates in R & J & Z. Photo by Hunter Canning.
BOTTOM LINE: If you thought the story of Juliet and her Romeo ends at Act V, you thought wrong in this clever amalgamation of Shakespeare and zombies.
If you had to imagine an epilogue to Romeo and Juliet, a zombie apocalypse probably would not be your first guess. But with recent hits like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I am shocked this idea has not been done already. Thankfully Melody Bates cleverly grafted Romeo and Juliet with the likes of Shaun of the Dead. The Bard may be turning in his grave, but I am sure Bates would not mind adding him to her madcap zombie horde.
R & J & Z opens with Act V of the original, diving right in to the tragedy’s gloomy climax. As we watch Romeo (Matt Hurley) prepare for his descent to Juliet’s (Melody Bates) tomb, the play seems like a typical production of Romeo and Juliet. Even so, between Tom Lee's beautifully ominous set design, the early introduction of new characters, and the newfound meaning in the text’s descriptions of Verona’s plague, the creative team has wasted no time in finding ways to rattle our sense of the typical. The status quo is completely shattered once the Prince begins his speech and Juliet wakes up for our first zombie attack! Shortly thereafter, her Romeo and their friends come back to life hungry for brains and answers.
Between blood spatter effects, fight scenes, and witty throwbacks to every B-Rated zombie flick you have ever seen, we find out the wheezing Apothecary (Rachel Benbow Murdy), who sold Romeo his dram of poison, is not so poor and helpless. Played with mesmerizing gusto, the Apothecary intends to turn everyone on earth into his groaning, flesh-eating servants no matter the cost. The fate of Verona is thus once again left in the hands of our two young (and freshly undead) lovers, and the friends who reanimate along the way.
This strong cast only enhances Bates’ clever text, and they clearly enjoy the universe she has created. Murdy’s devilish Apothecary is especially delightful. Her detailed performance binds the perfect combination of frightening yet enticing; Bates crafts a character who is horrendous, yet you love watching him wreak havoc.
Besides some of the tentative stage combat, my one gripe is the lack of development for the Searchers (Margi Sharp Douglas and Caitlin Johnston). These two new characters are members of a secret society that has spent ages preparing to fight off hordes of evil creatures. I do not mind the addition, but we learn so little about them that I failed to understand their purpose beyond the play’s plot structure; they felt more like devices than characters.
To a purist R & J & Z may sound like a bad idea topped with an “Enter If You Dare” sign. But if you have ever enjoyed campy zombie films, or you relish watching classics turned inside out, this play is for you. It is a witty reflection of the choices we make in life and their consequences. If we could bounce back from the grave, what would we do differently?
(R & J & Z plays at the New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, through April 18, 2015. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays at 8PM. Tickets are $18, and are available at www.newohiotheatre.org or by calling 888.596.1027.)