Living Dead in Denmark
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
May 5, 2006
The loony sensibility of Living Dead in Denmark, the new production from Vampire Cowboys Theater Company, is evident right from the start. The pre-show music is made up of theme songs from classic action-adventure TV shows: The Six Million Dollar Man, The A-Team, Batman, Knight Rider, The Greatest American Hero, and the like. If you detect a theme connecting those shows—i.e., societal outsiders banding together to covertly take on the goons of the world—it’s intentional. Drawing inspiration from those and other American pop culture touchstones (Quentin Tarantino, horror movies, The Goonies, etc.), as well as the works of William Shakespeare, author Qui Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker have concocted a spectacularly entertaining theatrical brew. Living Dead in Denmark is anything-goes, no-holds-barred theatre that is endlessly imaginative, and a lot of fun.
Billed as “an action-adventure/horror sequel” to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Living Dead in Denmark takes place five years after in a world that has been taken over by flesh-eating zombies. They are led by the Zombie Lord, who claims to be the true king of Denmark. Leading the charge against the zombies is Fortinbras, who assembles an elite strike team made up of Shakespeare’s most famous women: Juliet, Lady Macbeth, and Ophelia (all brought back from the dead, I should mention, for this sole reason). With newly resurrected/genetically engineered bodies at their disposal, and assorted sharp-and-pointy weapons in hand, these uber-Charlie’s Angels set out to defeat the Zombie Lord. Cue the Mission: Impossible music.
The fight sequences are both exciting and a hoot. Parker and fight director Marius Hanford make magic with their cartoonish, Kill Bill-style action. The ingenuity of their work here—which includes an astonishing freeze-frame tableau of the Zombie Lord taking on the entire Zombie Council, and an Act II showdown featuring Ophelia versus an army of ninja zombies—induces fits of laughter and reactions of pure awe. That they pull off this kind of mayhem in a 70-seat black box theatre makes it even more impressive.
What lifts Living Dead in Denmark above other pop culture-obsessed plays is its ability to avoid clichés. Nguyen has a blast with the references, springing them at just the right moment. While hunting the Three Weird Sisters (a.k.a. the witches from Macbeth), one of our fearless zombie hunters asks if the others are sure they’re in close proximity. Her cohort replies, “Oh, there’s witches here—check it,” and whips out a Stevie Nicks CD as evidence. When two characters find themselves embarking on an unexpected same-sex romance, Living Dead in Denmark takes the opportunity to ape Brokeback Mountain. And there are echoes of Rushmore and its second-string heroine, Margaret Yang, whenever Ophelia stops to write a reflective entry in her “battle diary” (accompanied by Mark Mothersbaugh’s score to the film).
(I haven’t even mentioned the musical numbers, which are a little hit-or-miss. But check out Caliban’s big power ballad—yes, Caliban from The Tempest—and tell me it’s not a direct descendant of Satan’s showstopping number from the South Park movie!)
Living Dead in Denmark is also cast so well it makes one want to see these actors play their actual Shakespearean roles. Carlo Alban makes a brave and sympathetic Horatio (having caught Ophelia’s eye, he admits undergoing a wardrobe makeover and a low carb diet). Andrea Marie Smith is a formidable and alluring Titania (who also gets to sing her own blues lament). Maggie Macdonald makes a funny and appealing hip-hop Puck. Jason Liebman is hypnotic and menacing as the Zombie Lord (whose secret identity is that of one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters: one of the undead female avengers is very surprised to see him). Melissa Paladino gives Lady Macbeth a nice, mouthy streetwise flavor, while Maureen Sebastian is her perfect opposite as the sweet-but-lethal Juliet. Anchoring the production is Amy Kim Waschke’s superb performance as Ophelia. Her accomplished mix of vulnerability, sexiness, and impulsiveness makes for a full-bodied characterization.
Living Dead in Denmark is inspired and offbeat theatre. It is entertaining and raucous, occasionally crass, surprisingly moving in places, and entirely original. If you want to see something a little unusual that will also renew your faith in what theatre can be, check out the Vampire Cowboys. Mark me.