Zombie Jamboree

22. October, 2012 Theater No comments

We always knew this day would come. Suddenly, zombies are everywhere, oddly concentrating their infestation on small theater companies in San Francisco’s theater district. The good news is that if the plays they’re in are to be believed, they seem to be mostly harmless.

Kelsey Bergstrom in Zombie Vixens from Hell. Photo by Laura Lundy-Paine.

The first outbreak I witnessed was at the Phoenix Theatre, where Alameda’s Virago Theatre Company is premiering John Byrd’s Zombie Vixens from Hell—The Musical! As the name implies, Zombie Vixens is more a tribute to 1960s exploitation flicks than a horror show per se. As if to drive the point home, projected onto a scrim before the show are a promotional film for 1960s exploitation flicks as well as local band She Mob’s “Wet Kitten” video, combining punky garage rock with vintage go-go dancer footage.

Director Robert Lundy-Paine’s staging is a no-frills production with a minimal set by Hilma Kargoll—a tiny sitting room set off to one side, and a small lab setup—with a live rock band hidden behind the scrim on which title cards are projected like in a silent film, as well as an amusing video newscast.

In Zombie Vixens the zombie virus only affects women and seems to be transmitted primarily by kissing, and it turns women into sex-crazed, brain-snacking fiends. Amusingly enough, much of the brain-eating in the show is consensual. Like vampires in latter-day romantic portrayals, these zombie vixens snack on only a little bit at a time, keeping their prey alive and ready for more. But, of course, brain-munching is a lot harder to portray as sexy than neck-biting, and therein lies a lot of the humor. Actually, the zombies in this play are more like pop-culture representations of vampires in general than the walking dead: They’re not mindless or rotting; they’ve just lost their pulse and their inhibitions and gained a lusty hunger.

Our heroine is Agnes, a mild-mannered PhD candidate in the sciences. Portrayed with campy zest by Kelly Rausch, she’s wishy-washy and bitterly sarcastic at the same time—sure, you can walk all over her, but beware of her snarky grumbling.

Her belittling, browbeating professor (an amusingly haughty John Mercer) has her do all the lab work from morning to night and then steals the credit for her discoveries. Chief among these is a “DNA vaccine” that only works on women—the purpose of it is a little garbled, but it’s either supposed to make them immune to disease or functionally immortal. Either way, it’s the sort of discovery that inevitably goes horribly, terribly wrong.

For all her bookish introversion, Agnes is the Typhoid Mary of the zombie plague. Infected in a lab accident, she passes it on through kisses to her mom and her party-girl best/only friend Tris (a jubilantly sex-kittenish Kelsey Bergstrom). Once Tris has it, she gives it to pretty much everybody, and before you know it she’s the queen bee of a girl gang of hedonistic, predatory zombie vixens in more or less matching fishnetted vixen uniforms by Zipporah Ross. Burton Weaver is a sweetly nerdy love interest as Vin (short for Vinculum), and Donald Currie shows up as a nice old duffer with a singsong voice who starts dating Agnes’s mom (a busybodyish and amusingly frisky Shelley Lynn Johnson).

The show is more silly than funny, but it’s charming and fun as a campy romp. And as the title states, it’s a musical. The singing is so-so, and Byrd’s songs are a mixed bag. The rockingest numbers—the ensemble title tune, Tris’s vixen manifesto “You Don’t Bang Me,” and an artfully staged scooter-chase song—are pretty catchy. There’s a humorous “Hail to the Professor” song that owes a debt to Candide, and even an adorable love ballad from Vin. But there are also several clunkers, like Mom’s ersatz cabaret ditty “At Least You Have Your Health” and Agnes’s cloying lament about how dreary it is to have to do science all day. It’s clear if unstated that what she really means by “doing science” is lab drudgery, but still, someone may want to break it to her that when you’re studying to be a scientist, doing science all day is pretty much what you’re aiming at.

Tonya Narvaez and Neil Higgins in Love in the Time of Zombies. Photo by Claire Rice.

The zombies in Kirk Shimano’s new comedy Love in the Time of Zombies are more traditional, at least on the surface. They’re near-mindless, shambling and pallid, feasting on human flesh and moaning for brains. But underneath it all, they’re just like us, and not just because they are us.

This premiere is a production of San Francisco Theater Pub, which performs its plays for free on Monday and Tuesday nights in a working bar. A slim playing area in the center of the Cafe Royale floor is roped off with police tape, with a bloodstained cardboard box on the floor containing clever cutout props—each in red-splattered white cardboard with generic lettering stating what it is.

The audience serves as the zombie horde, or at least the sound of them, cued by director Claire Rice in vampy horror hostess mode. But the play’s more about love than about zombies, as the four young survivors hack and slash their way toward their inevitable hookups.

Two of them are hooking up already. Tony Cirmele’s Rex and Tonya Narvaez’s Shelley are constantly making out hot and heavy. Although Rex has the charisma and suave voice of a B-movie hero, he’s really an abject coward, which works out at first because the rage-fueled Shelley does enough zombie-slaying for both of them.

Neil Higgins (performing on his nights off from Thunderbird’s The Scotland Company) is hilarious as the excruciatingly self-doubting Joe, who has a huge crush on Todd—the fourth member of their party, who’s the strong, silent type and hard to read—but keeps chickening out on making a move, even though Paul Rodrigues’s perplexedly patient he-man Todd seems perfectly receptive.

They stumble into a cabin that belongs to a scientist whose experiments inevitably are going to have something to do with those zombies outside. Although Maggie Ziomek’s pleasant but cold-blooded Melinda wants them all out of her house at first, once she realizes they’re not going anywhere she becomes all too accommodating, coaxing them to indulge all their worst instincts with perverse relish.

Alisha Ehrlich is especially entertaining as the one zombie that we see, glassy-eyed and deadpan until she’s fed, when she suddenly livens up and becomes a childishly inquisitive teenager filled with bubbly joie de vivre.

Despite a slapdash ending, Shimano’s one-hour play is pretty darned hilarious, delightfully brought to life (or at least to living death) by Rice and her cast. There’s a lot of ridiculous mumbo-jumbo about how humanity is made up of four cardinal emotions (conveniently embodied by our heroes) and how zombies hunger for emotions, not brains. But whether or not these premises make any sense, they have a hysterical payoff in the play, providing ample incentive to just go with it. The good news here is that not only is zombieism a curable condition, but deep down zombies are just like the rest of us. As any zombie knows, you have do dig down deep beneath the skin to get to the good stuff.

Zombie Vixens from Hell—The Musical!
Virago Theatre Company
Through November 3
Phoenix Theatre
414 Mason St.
San Francisco

Love in the Time of Zombies
Through October 30
Cafe Royale
800 Post St.
San Francisco

Zombie Vixens from Hell: Show #91 of 2012, attended October 12.

Love in the Time of Zombies: Show #94 of 2012, attended October 15.


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