Theater / Here’s the thing to remember as you watch Uncle Vanya and Zombies: It’s not Uncle Vanya. Definitely not Uncle Vanya. Folks expecting to see Chekhov’s classic drama with zombies thrown in like raisins over a blancmange are going to be mystified, horrified, or zombified themselves.
Which, on the whole, is not a bad thing.
UV&Z is, instead, a Grand Guignol romp that chops together aspects of video games, talk shows, reality TV and other pop culture memes into a farrago of Monty Pythonesque silliness and Walking Dead gore–a deconstructed-reconstructed absurdist commentary on high-brow art, low-brow splatter, with, perhaps, one or two moments of actual drama and Chekhovian despair.
Plus zombies. Highly entertaining zombies.
If you can liberate any expectations about realism, the Moscow Art Theatre and sacred texts of the modern theater, then you are just the person to go see UV&Z.
A surprise for me–I was that person.
I’m not a Chekhov scholar but I am a Chekhov fan. The gentle brutality of Chekhov’s dramas appeals to me: his surgical examination of hopeless human hopefulness, the characters who yearn for the unattainable, their masks melting away, the quiet inevitable destruction of inner lives mirrored by the irresistible decay, loss and change occurring within an outer one.
I love that stuff. Obviously, Chekhov appeals to depressives.
So, last Thursday, when I attended the final dress of UV&Z, I was in a non-Prozac mood, ready to immerse myself in Russian melancholic nihilism to experience catharsis. Or, at least, schadenfreude.
Instead, I got bitten. Not literally, but laterally; this play snuck up on me, sideways.
From the moment I arrived at the theatre, director Marcus Wessendorf confronted and subverted my expectations of a typical Chekhov performance. You, too, should arrive early. Don’t miss the gory, groaning, shambling zombies who stalk you at will call–part of the conceptual environment of the show.
Inside, the stage front is barricaded by the theatrical equivalent of high-voltage wires. One of the emcees purred that these wires deliver “one hundred thousand volts of ‘love’”. Behind this barricade is a set that’s a cross between a fallout shelter and a 1950s diner. It most definitely is not a 19th-century dacha.
Within the context of the show as Wessendorf has devised it (he’s listed as co-author, with Chekhov, if that’s an appropriate designation), Oahu has suffered a nuclear incident called Pearl Harbor II. As a result, much of the island’s population has become zombies.
We spectators assume the role of non-zombie residents watching a reality show, Theatre Masterpieces and Zombies, where other residents compete for prizes, a chance to leave the island, or gain assistance for loved ones. These competitors must perform a classic play during which murderous zombies are released into the set, much like ravenous lions turned loose in a Roman arena. To win, the newly-minted actors must not only survive zombie attacks, but also continue to play in character, even when another character suffers a bite and zombifies.
Interesting? Yes, and delightfully weird. But it gets better.
Two masters of ceremonies, Walt Gaines and Cocoa Chandelier, serve as commentators and manipulators of the action. At stage right, Gaines embodies the role of glib show host and commentator, interviewing featured guests such as Craig Howes (a nervous Chekhov scholar) and Montana Rizzuto (winner of a “prior” episode, “The Tempest and Zombies”), as well as taking a Phil Donahue walk into the audience to chat with spectators.
His counterpart, at stage left, is Cocoa Chandelier (the stage name of Sami L. A. Akuna), a velvety dominatrix. Chandelier summarizes each upcoming section of the “Vanya” story, but also raises the stakes in the action by releasing a zombie from time to time.
Honestly, this show can’t be described easily. You need to see it to appreciate it. The cast–who play themselves, as well as Chekhov’s characters–fearlessly attack their roles (as well as each other). Garrett T. K. Taketa, Kyle Scholl, Karissa J. Murrell, Josephine Calvo, Alex Rogals, Seth N. Lilley, Harold Wong, and Amber Lehua Davison deserve high marks for playing two roles at once, with enthusiasm and fake blood.
The zombies, too, shuffle, groan, and yowl with extraordinary commitment. I don’t want to reveal too much, but a large portion of the comedy (and there is lots of comedy) is due to their inspired mindlessness. The end verdict on UV&Z? It ain’t Chekhov, but it’s darned fun.