Once upon a time, there was a big theater in a medium sized town. And the people who ran that theater thought that, in addition to Foreigner and Beach Boys concerts, and Miss Provo beauty pageants, it might be nice to perform some actual honest-to-goodness plays. And so they did ask the general public what they would like to see, and some wag waggishly suggested that Shakespeare’s great comedy, Much Ado About Nothing might be improved by the addition of zombies. And the Halloween slot did beckon. And many many other people on-line saw this suggestion, and said to their own personal Siri-person things like ‘ooo’ and ‘ah,’ and ‘awesome.’ And then the theater management rubbed their chins thoughtfully, and said ‘hmm.’ And then some sensible person said, ‘wait! Someone has to direct. What directors do we know who are crazy enough to want to do this?’
And behold, my phone did ring.
I really dig zombies. I think the very idea of zombies is creepy and scary and sick and funny, and those are all words I like very much. I’ve liked zombies ever since I was in high school, and I read a column in the local newspaper by, I’m pretty sure, George F. Will (yes, he was bloviating even way back then), in which he described a movie, a film that had been released some years earlier but was now being re-released, called The Night of the Living Dead. He said it was the kind of movie that signaled the end of civilization as we knew it, that it was so extreme, so horrific in its violence and so nihilistic in its attitude towards that violence that it simply should never have been made, and certainly never released, and absolutely never seen by teens or children. I think I was fifteen or sixteen, and instantly knew this was a must-see movie, and went with a friend, and it was amazing. Terrifying and funny and best of all, forbidden. (A few years later, a talk in Church said similar things about The Exorcist, that under no circumstances whatever should LDS teens see this movie. Saw it the next night, and loved how scary it was. Walked home afterwards, and every tree was haunted, and every dog possessed.)
So, I love zombies. Love the old George A. Romero Night of the Living Dead zombies, shambling and moaning and eating brains. Love the newer zombies, the hard-to-kill Olympic sprinter zombies of 28 Days Later, the virus-hits-in-seconds wall-scrambling zombies of WW Z, the lonely and bewildered (and romantically inclined) zombies of Warm Bodies. I even liked the rotting Nazi zombies of Dead Snow, a fairly terrible Norwegian zombie movie of five years ago. The movie wasn’t very good, but the zombies were very scary. My niece, Marilyn, was even in a zombie movie a couple of years ago; titled (if memory serves) The Undeadening. It never got theatrically released, but hit the link–it’s got a trailer!
But sadly, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is lamentably deficient in references to zombies. Not just that play, but his entire oeuvre has hardly any actual zombie characters. Ghosts, oh, heck yeah. Shakespeare never met a ghost he didn’t like. And I suppose you could always turn his ghosts into zombies. But there aren’t even ghosts in Much Ado.
And I love Much Ado. It’s a genuinely brilliant comedy, one of the best comedies ever written by anyone. So why mess with it? Why impose on a brilliant comedy some conceit like zombies? Why take a timeless classic and reduce it to pop culture memes. In other words, how do we avoid just doing a production of Much Ado with a bunch of zombies shambling pointlessly about on the periphery?
It’s no good saying ‘because this is what we do, because this is current and new, because this kind of updating is how people do Shakespeare nowadays.’ A bad idea doesn’t become a good idea just by being current.
No, this is only worth doing if adding zombies somehow clarifies and illuminates the text. I’m not interested in just tossing zombies into a Shakespeare comedy because, hey, that’s the gig. I respect Shakespeare too much, I respect Much Ado too much, heck, I respect zombies too much, to do that.
Much Ado is a great love story, the story of two bright and lonely and wounded people, Beatrice and Benedick, both of whom have renounced love forever, who nonetheless find each other. But it’s also about Claudio and Hero, two lovers poisoned by slander and gossip and the nasty political machinations of
Keanu Reeves Don John. It’s about life and romance and taking a chance on love again. But death is a constant presence; Hero’s (faked) death and Claudio’s (threatened) death at Benedick’s hand. And under all that is war. The characters are soldiers, men who have seen death first-hand, and are now embracing the sweet celebration of life that love represents.
Zombies represent death. In fact, zombies represent the ever-present human fear of death, a terror that follows when the dead rot in their graves, but still won’t quite stay dead. And they crave . . . brains, the site and source of human personality, of consciousness itself, of what we call the soul. If vampires are the undead, zombies are the unalive, the anti-alive. They’re sheer malevolence, unreasoning evil. They work really well for Don John.
So that’s what our production attempts, to explore that dynamic: love/life (Beatrice and Benedick), vs. hate/death (Don John/zombies). And trapped in the middle are Claudio and Hero, the innocent victims, trapped between life and death, love and hatred. We’re cutting down most of Claudio’s lines. He’s been infected by the virus, is losing the ability to speak. But he can fight it. Hero makes him want to fight it. Benedick is likewise torn, between killing the zombie and restoring the friend.
A terrific writer named Becky Baker has been doing the adaptation, having combed all of Shakespeare to find every even vaguely zombie-sounding line. I love what she’s doing with the script. She’s bright and talented and unafraid–everything I like in a writer. And as we talked about a setting for this version of Much Ado, I kept thinking it might work if we set it in some version of Victorian society, a society absolutely saturated by the fear of death. But it’s a fictional world, obviously, not Shakespeare’s Messina, but some approximation of reality. (The ‘war’ they’re all returning from, for example, is a war against zombies).
So we’re going steam-punk with it.
The Covey Center designers are having a ball with it, and the design is going to be spectacular. We have original music, being composed even as we speak, for Shakespeare’s poems. (Balthazar, the minstrel, is the first zombie infected). We haven’t cast yet, and won’t until September–actors, it’s going to be lots of fun, so brush up your monologues!
And tickets are already on sale; here’s the link.
I really think it’s going to be fun. And if you’re going to be in Provo around Halloween, come see us! Zombies, and Much Ado! What could possibly go wrong?