Venture Out for Uncle Vanya and Zombies
|November 13, 2012||Posted by Scott Robertson under Staff Reviews|
Scott Robertson is a writer for Hitting The Stage. He has appeared as an actor on many of Hawai‘i’s stages.
It’s nice to get away from everything once in a while. These days even simple things seem difficult, so everyone should plan to take an evening off. I recently spent an engaging and distracting two hours at the Charles H. Koch Auditorium, that’s the old Kennedy Theatre at the University of Hawaii, taking in the 6th Episode of “Theatre Masterpieces and Zombies.” This time they were doing Uncle Vanya and Zombies, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
I had two tickets to see the show and I was planning to go with my neighbor, Joanne, but because we live in Waikiki, we had a bit of a walk to the military bus depot. Along the way Joanne was attacked by a zombie. It was a small injury, but as we all know that doesn’t really matter. We both understood that she would either turn or die before the show was over, so she decided to stay at the depot. Too bad, because I kind of liked her and she really missed a good show.
I thought that by now we would all have our electricity back but, oh no, not in Waikiki. So I have never seen one of the “Theatre Masterpieces and Zombies” broadcasts. If you want to see one of their shows here, you have to see it live at the Koch Auditorium. I wanted to see Oedipus Rex and Zombies, that’s the one where one of the contestants poked his own eyes out, but I couldn’t get tickets, so I thought I was “settling” when I scored Uncle Vanya. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. See, it turns out that Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya was the perfect play for the eight contestants (Josephine Calvo, Amber Lehua Davison, Seth N. Lilley, Karissa J. Murrell, Alex Rogals, Kyle Scholl, Garett T. K. Taketa, and Harold Wong) to attempt as they were being attacked and eaten by zombies (Travis Ross, Kara Nabarrete, and Elvis Chanh Nguyen). It really changed the sense of lines like “I really wish I could see your face right now,” or “There’s something terribly wrong in this house,” or “You’re shaking and you’re all upset.” I remember seeing Uncle Vanya sometime before the nuclear sub incident at Pearl Harbor that created the zombies in the first place and trapped us all here on O‘ahu, and I just don’t remember it being so funny.
Joanne said that not everyone here on our quarantined island knows about the show, so maybe I should explain. Walt Gaines and Cocoa Chandelier, perfectly played hosts, front this hit reality/game show in which contestants must enact five scenes from a masterpiece play. During the scenes, zombies are released onto the stage. There are three rules for the contestants: (1) Don’t drop lines, (2) Don’t drop character, and (3) Don’t drop dead. Naturally, the initial tension comes from whether the zombies who join our actors are loungers or lunchers. Loungers are easily pushed aside, but when lunchers are involved we watch the actors run their scenes while alternately evading and pounding their deadly nemesis. A scratch or bite adds even more intrigue since our contestants must now continue as long as they can while becoming a zombie. After all, delivering their lines properly while turning into a zombie can still earn big prizes for their next of kin. Survivors win a trip off the island to either attend an Ivy League college or join a Fortune 500 company, their choice.
You know, it reminded me of those scary movies, or murder mysteries, where everyone gets picked off one at a time. There’s not necessarily a real deep story, but all the excitement comes from wondering who is going to get it next, how they are going to get it, and how many people will be left standing at the end. But this is not a story, it is happening live (mostly) right in front of you. You should be a little careful when you arrive. I have a good eye for zombies and I spotted a few hanging around the auditorium before the show. But once inside you feel very protected by the armed guard (O. Xavier Smith III) and the electrified fence between you and the stage. I wish I had one of those around my condo.
I found myself a little distracted by the zombies sometimes. Their moans, struggles, and constant wandering made it hard to concentrate on the main action. But that’s how it is nowadays, what with gory zombies everywhere you go. At some point Cocoa had to remind Walt that the show needed to be finished by curfew, which I was happy about because even though the actors had to perform five scenes, I basically got the idea after about three or four.
The real challenges came when contestants had to run their scenes while enduring the pain of turning into a zombie, or the consequences of harsh measures taken to avoid it. A good example is the great dialog between Sonya (Murrell), the professor’s daughter, and Yelena (Scholl), the professor’s wife, as they talk while writhing on the floor about why they are so happy. I think in the real play they were hiding their true feelings too. It’s also very entertaining to watch as characters hold up one side of a conversation, seeing how their scene partner can only thrash and grunt, like when Dr. Astrov (Lilley) delivers a monologue to the professor’s zombified wife as she flails helplessly and harmlessly on a treadmill. Personally, I was rooting for Waffles (Wong), who was the best dancer by far. Oops, I’m giving it away and I don’t want you to know who makes it through to the end, if anyone does.
Sometimes I felt that the whole show was a metaphor about how life is these days. You are determined to stick to your script and keep your cool even as you are aware of the ten-thousand volt fence that pens you in and the continuous injection of crazy and dangerous people into your life. Craig Howes, Director of the former Center for Biographical Research at the University of Hawaii, makes an inspired guest appearance to try to discuss such things, but alas he was consumed by the story of his own life and then Chekhov’s life and time. Better than being consumed by a zombie, I guess. Despite the nuclear disaster, apparently things haven’t changed much for professors, although he did say that he was pleased the government had given him a desk.
Ironically, Chekhov’s characters, back when they stayed alive long enough to get through the whole play (ha ha), tell a story about the struggles of people facing a modern world of despair, environmental degradation, and arbitrary existential assault – the kind of world where you can’t tell if gunshots in the next room mean a suicide, a double murder, or a failure to hit the target (twice). Supposedly, when Stanislavski himself got a crack at the role of Dr. Astrov, he preoccupied the character with so much business swatting mosquitoes that it brought him a rebuke from the director for his “excesses” and a promise from Chekhov to set his next play in a land with no insects to “hinder conversation between human beings.” Well if only those of us in post-apocalyptic Oahu were so lucky. Hey, we’ve moved on. We know that in today’s world it’s all about winning, and we will cooperate just as easily as we will turn on each other in order to gain our advantages. We talk, but we’re not listening to each other, or even to ourselves. But who can blame us? We’re swatting zombies right and left! I’m not interested in getting devoured, are you?
When I got home I immediately went to my neighbor Joanne’s apartment, but it had already been raided. I was furious with myself because not only did I know exactly where she kept her secret stash of peanut butter, but I realized that I should have taken her ID at the bus depot so that nobody who found her body would know where she lived. Oh well, like someone said at the end of the show (I’m not telling who), “The only thing we can hope for is a little peace and quiet before we’re dead, if we have to go on living.”
Markus Wessendorf has created a strange play that somehow captures the interpersonal barbarism and capriciousness of our own time and warps it, as we would, into a game show. I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that, zombies aside, this reality series would be a hit. I myself clapped when the second zombie was released. Oh yes, the audience was very into it. This production is sad in a funny way, funny in a sad way, and almost true in a scary way. Chekhov would be proud. Oh, and it has zombies.
Uncle Vanya and Zombies is playing in real-life at UHM’s Kennedy Theatre on Nov. 9, 10, 15, 16 & 17 at 8pm and Nov. 18 at 2pm.