Twelfth Night of the Living Dead, a Comedy Mixing Shakespeare and Zombies (5 Stars PLUS)
What happens when a genuine Shakespeare troupe puts on a nuanced, well-acted performance of Twelfth Night, where the characters get attacked by zombies, like in the film Night of the Living Dead?
Surprisingly, it’s intelligent, hilarious fun. It’s gross and disgusting, but also compelling and deep. Did I mention hilarious? At the end of the performance you’ll be left stunned. What just happened?
The actors clearly know what they are doing, without a weak performance in the cast. Erica Jade Simpson takes the lead, as the first zombie of many, with physical comedy that is laugh out loud funny. Her would-be human victims, oblivious to the danger she poses, avoid her bite by walking around the stage, slapping her, holding her in a hug, and more. Meanwhile they don’t break character, and every line in the play is taken from Twelfth Night.
The scenes are adapted to the oncoming zombie onslaught. In one scene, a woman rejects her lover, making an excuse for physical comedy where she pushes the zombie away over and over before it can eat her. The staging, consisting of a fence along the back wall of the small black box theatre, permitted zombies to march back and forth behind the action without getting to eat anyone. Don’t worry, the action escalates quickly and whole parts of the dialogue go missing as the characters get turned into zombies themselves. Yet it all makes at least a little sense.
The show has a “splash zone” with ponchos for those in the front row. With brains and blood going everywhere, the highlight of the show must have been eating zombies eating leftover brains on the floor.
Director Bryn Boice, Erica Jade Simpson, and drunkard-playing and blood squirt master Johnny Kinsman kindly agreed to an interview, and then I also interviewed cast members Julee Antonellis, Maryanne Truax, and Spencer Parli Tew.
Events INSIDER: Bryn, you play it straight through this show. Instead of making it a farce, there’s great Shakespearean acting in it.
Bryn Boice: We worked on the actual play. There’s nothing in our show except the word ‘brains’ that is not taken from Shakespeare’s actual Twelfth Night text. We worked from the real play, and then as people die, the text goes away. This is pure Shakespeare with what happens if a meteor hits Illyria.
Events INSIDER: Erica, you play a zombie for pretty much the entire production.
Erica Jade Simpson: Yes, yes, indeed.
Events INSIDER: A lot of physical comedy involves you twisting, zombie style, in a way that might hurt.
Erica Jade Simpson: Nothing hurt. Nothing hurt. I am a very flexible person. If it looks like it hurts, just attribute that to some good facial acting.
Events INSIDER: Who’s idea was it that you should eat the brains off the floor?
Erica Jade Simpson: That usually comes to me in a moment of inspiration on the given night. There’s always a moment after we’ve had our faces in Sir Toby, where I notice that a piece has gone astray, and I desire it. I get it. I get to have that. I spent the whole show chasing people and having them get away, and so I decide that in that moment, I’m allowed what I desire.
Events INSIDER: Is there a choreographer, or did you just kind of make it up as you went? Did you do your own?
Erica Jade Simpson: Bryn and I worked together pretty closely to develop the zombie movements. She worked with everything closely. We started off with some movement stuff, and that informed where rehearsals started, but then how each of us moved, because all of the zombies move very differently. We got to experience the scenes and try things out.
Events INSIDER: Is it all planned, or was it kind of improv? Like a kind of congealing of what works?
Erica Jade Simpson: There are some moments that are very planned, and very precise, and they have to be a specific way, then there are some others where you get to kind of feel around and see what feels right that night, and what can you get away with and what can you not get away with.
Bryn Boice: For a lot of things can’t be too improvised, because the blood packs are in certain places.
Events INSIDER: Your character was perhaps the most oblivious to the dangerous zombies, even after you’ve been bitten.
Johnny Kinsman: The way I sort of thought about it is Sir Toby Belch spends so much of his life in an altered frame of mind …
Bryn Boice: Drunk.
Johnny Kinsman: He is a party-goer even if there is no party, he brings the party wherever he is. During some of the scenes, he is absolutely besotted with booze. What is really the difference, if he’s already messed up in the head all the time, what does he know from zombie death? If he’s got an infection from a bite …
Bryn Boice: A love bite.
Johnny Kinsman: A love bite, that is creeping into his brain, well that’s sort of like last week too when he fell off that thing and had a wound he couldn’t explain.
Events INSIDER: Are you going to do it again next year?
Bryn Boice: I don’t know. It’s a lot of work for a 4-person company. We’re very small.
Events INSIDER: It’s like 17 people are in this cast, right?
Bryn Boice: It’s a 15-person cast. We have some really great designers, but it’s a lot for a little company to do actually. That informs the staging.
Erica: There needs to be something that stops us from getting our prey at any given time also. That was a lot of working with Bryn Boice as far as the scenes go, and then working with Matt as far as so what is the violence…
Bryn Boice: How do we stay safe, as people.
Erica: How does it look from various angles, and how can we make it repeatable every night.
Johnny Kinsman: Working as a body, as a cast, I think the greatest success that we’ve found together under Bryn Boice’s direction, was the juxtapositions of the people. The zombie only wants to eat you, and the potential human victim has to prevent that from happening. But the human also has to be oblivious of this fact so that the plot [ of the original Twelfth Night ] can continue.
Johnny Kinsman: You get zombie versus human, and love story versus Apocalypse all happening at the same time, and it’s supposed to be funny. It’s very precise.
Events INSIDER: This is not an original production. It’s been done before elsewhere, right?
Bryn Boice: It has. A couple times, and this is the black box [ version ].
Events INSIDER: So you had a script to work from, but not like a whole body of video tapes to look at.
Bryn Boice: Yeah, exactly.
Events INSIDER (later): What would you say to someone who is considering going to the show?
Julee Antonellis: I would say expect the unexpected. One surprising thing is that who knew Shakespeare and zombies made a beautiful pairing?
Maryanne Truax: It oddly goes wonderfully together.
Events INSIDER: There were certain times when someone’s rejecting someone else, or ignoring someone else, and that’s I guess in the real dialogue, right?
Maryanne Truax: Absolutely. Every word that we said was written by Shakespeare. It was all Shakespearean dialogue. Then was add a few extra brains.
Spencer Parli Tew: When I get bit, I talk for a little while, I hit the deck, and turn right away. I think it has something to do with sort of the weakness of will.
Events INSIDER: When you fall to the floor, do you have like a pencil in your pocket that you’re putting the make-up on, where your face is turned away or something?
Spencer Parli Tew: Most of the time after, we just get off stage so fast you don’t get enough time to see it.
Help me reward arrtists who take creative risks and succeed. I’m happy to give Twelfth Night of the Living Dead a big 5 stars plus.