Romero & Juliet
by Samantha O'Brien
12th Night of the Living Dead reviewed October 25, 2007
The Bard had it coming. All of the elements of Twelfth Night are perfectly suited for a zombie horror interpretation: morbid language, contagious insanity, and near-comical ignorance. The most enjoyable aspect of the Impetuous Theater Group's adaptation, 12th Night of the Living Dead, is that they not only take this unique approach, but pull it off with a stunning degree of commitment to the original work.
Unlike the bloodbath that unfolds onstage, playwright Brian MacInnis Smallwood's adaptation is more like careful surgery than wild hacking, as he extracts only absolutely essential and appropriate parts. The synopsis generally remains the same: Viola disguises herself as a male, Cesario, creating a bizarre love triangle between herself, the lovelorn Orsino, and the mourning Lady Olivia. All the while, the show's pranksters, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Maria, down some wine and taunt the stiff steward, Malvolio.
Though Smallwood cuts many lines (nearly all of Viola's: as the first zombie, she's reduced to grunts and squeals for the entire show), what remains is strikingly smooth. He occasionally adds fresh updates to fit his subject (when Feste, the fool, exclaims "as if thy eldest son should be a fool; whose skull Jove cram with brains!" a nearby zombie echoes, "braaiiins!") and assigns some lines to different characters, but his version impressively uses most of Shakespeare's own words to tell a completely different tale.
In this interpretation, a giant green meteor has struck Viola and Sebastian's ship, pulling the vessel down and dragging the siblings apart. Viola washes up on the shores of Illyria, looking a bit pale and, well, different. She walks with a heavy limp and carries herself in a sort of post-lobotomy fashion. Apparently, the meteor has infused her with an insatiable appetite for human flesh – a hunger that is passed onto each of her victims.
One of the most amusing things about watching a Shakespearean comedy is feeling privy to an issue that the characters keep missing. In Twelfth Night, it is their failure to see beyond the gender disguises. This inability to notice unusual realities is also what made the recent zombie comedy, Shaun of the Dead, so amusing. Like the people in that film, the untouched (that is, still human) characters in 12th Night… start out dangerously blind to the plague that's overtaking those around them.
As Sirs Toby and Andrew, Timothy J. Cox and Benjamin Ellis Fine are fantastic aloof fools, giggling and gamboling amidst the bloody scene. Fine portrays Andrew as an amusing kind of man-child with a nice blend of cockiness and cowardice. One moment he’s declaring a duel, the next he’s crying and rocking himself as he’s cradled in a friend’s arms.
Much of the show's hilarity surfaces when Shakespearean eloquence collides with the grit and gore of cult horror. As our Viola snarls and growls at the gate to Olivia's estate, and even bites Malvolio, Olivia's response (lifted directly from the original) becomes absurdly understated: "you began rudely."
The entire cast superbly navigates the unusual territory of spilled intestines and iambic pentameter. Tom Knutson makes Malvolio's transformation into a zombie a particular treat, as the conservative servant gradually loses his rigidity with progressively slumping posture and increasingly breathy, broken speech.
Special effects help the show blend dialogue fit for a production at The Globe with visuals fit for a zombie film by George A. Romero. Increased levels of gore are seamlessly woven into the story. The creepily comical flirting between Olivia and Viola-as-Cesario is a good example. Unaware of the present danger, Olivia takes the zombie Viola's aggression for passion and becomes quite attracted to her attacker.
Even when the zombie bites off her finger, Olivia is not deterred. In a clever spin on Shakespeare's original – which has Olivia sending Cesario a ring as a token of affection – this version has her sending the entire severed appendage.
The production's only weakness is its complete devotion to creating chaos. Often, the zombie groans completely drown out the dialogue. At other points, the action is so widely distributed across the stage that it's impossible to focus. The house, for example, actually has a bar to the side of the main stage. While it's a fitting setting for Toby and Andrew, the bar is located so far from the center that most of the audience cannot see it.
Although the plot centers on disorder, the success of this mash-up rides on its tight organization and nice balance between different genres. In one of show's best scenes, for example, zombie characters pause to have a "chat." While they groan at each other, they hold their lines on cards. The scene is funny and unique, as zombies are traditionally uncommunicative. Leave it to Shakespeare fans to find a way to give pop culture's most ineloquent monsters a method of articulating their thoughts.