THE ZOMBIE LIFE

Zombies never second guess. Zombies have no regrets. Are you ready to be converted?

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: August 18-29, 2021. August 18-20, previews. August 21 Premiere. Limited seating due to COVID. All audience members must be fully vaccinated and wear masks inside The Firehouse. Remaining tickets sold out online as of Friday, October 26, but call the Box Office to check if seats have opened up.

Ticket Prices: $33

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

The premise of Chris Gavaler’s new play, The Zombie Life, is that life is better as a Zombie. Zombies do not feel guilt, shame, or emotional pain. They have no responsibilities, don’t have to plan for the future, and have no regrets about the past. So, we find ourselves in the audience as Gavaler’s unnamed* Therapist (Ken Moretti) begins a self-help seminar, the purpose of which is to hear Zombies share their experiences and, hopefully, be convinced to join their ranks. *[The Therapist is unnamed on the program, but elsewhere identified as Dr. Steve Brandeis.]

One Woman (Shalandis Wheeler Smith) comes to the seminar weighed down by the demands of life and her over-stuffed tote bag. She interrupts the Therapist and decides to commit to becoming a Zombie even before the demonstration begins. For the rest of the play, which runs an hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission, the Woman learns the ropes of The Zombie Life as her four mentors demonstrate for the audience.

“Being dead is so much easier, so much safer.”

The Therapist uses objects recycled from their past lives and other found objects to trigger memories of the futility of searching for the meaning of life: a pair of doctors involved in Zombie research, a creepy mortician, a mindless soldier, a couple of cannibals, a group of confederate sympathizers, a sex worker, and the mother of a stillborn baby are among the object examples of human pain, suffering, and foibles. But try as he might, the Therapist has a hard time controlling his little band of Zombies, played with varying degrees of creepiness, conviction, and overacting by Marjie Southerland, Jacqueline Jones, PJ Freebourn, and Keaton Hillman.

“Uncertainty. That’s your soul trying to get your attention.”

I was never sure if the creepy asides and overacting was intentional. I have seen and thoroughly enjoyed all six of these actors in many productions over the years, and I know that they are all capable of giving stellar performances. But Chris Gavaler’s script just didn’t reach stellar levels. The script is scattered and awkward and not even a highly professional cast, or earnest direction by Gavaler’s sister, Joan Gavaler, or interesting movement sequences by Dan Plehal could bring a sense of cohesiveness and focus to this production.

The Zombie Life is different, for sure, and there are more than a few moments of humor. It is thought-provoking, and incorporates relevant social, philosophical, and spiritual issues. It just doesn’t work in its present form. Tickets for the remaining performances are sold out, but if you dare or care to see it for yourself, do call The Firehouse Box Office (804) 355-2001 as a few of the limited and socially distanced seats may open up at the last minute.

Production Team:

Written by Chris Gavaler

Directed by Joan Gavaler

Movement Director – Dan Plehal

Production Designer – Todd Labelle

Costume Designer – Annette Hairfield

Prop Designer – AC Wilson

Crew – Emma Avelis & Scott Shepardson

Stage Manager – Grace Brown

Cast:

Therapist – Ken Moretti

Woman – Shalandis Wheeler Smith

Zombie #1 – Marjie Southerland

Zombie #2 – Jacqueline Jones

Zombie #3 – PJ Freebourn

Zombie #4 – Keaton Hillman

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Performance schedule:

Wed Aug 18 7:30pm (preview)

Thu Aug 19 7:30pm (preview)

Fri Aug 20 7:30pm (preview)

Sat Aug 21 7:30pm

Thu Aug 26 7:30pm

Fri Aug 27 7:30pm

Sat Aug 28 7:30pm

Sun Aug 29 3pm

Tickets:

$33

Photos: Bill Sigafoos

THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW: Do The Time Warp Again

THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW: A Cult Classic

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

At: The Robert B Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue, RVA 23230

Performances: October 17-26, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10-40 | This show sold out completely at the beginning of its limited 2-week run

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Full Disclosure: It’s hard for me to write about a show like Rocky Horror Show when I can clearly see the skill and craft, acknowledge the talent and heartfelt performances, appreciate the music and humor, but I know that this cult classic just isn’t for me.

So, first the good news: Michael Hawke, who has a long history with this show, and was, in fact The Narrator in the 2012 production at The Firehouse Theatre, has directed with unbound energy and an unerring sense of comedic timing. The plot, for Rocky Horror Show “virgins,” who have never seen the show (stage or movie version) is merely a vehicle to carry a variety of themes including gender fluidity, counterculture, and sexual liberation.

The plot revolves around a newly engaged young couple, Brad and Janet, played with touching innocence by Luke Newsome and Madeline Witmer, who get a flat tire while driving through a rainstorm to celebrate their engagement with Dr. Scott (Carlen Kernish), the science professor who introduced them. Seeking help, they find the castle of  Frank ‘N’ Furter, a transvestite scientist from Transylvania, who is hosting a party to celebrate his newest invention, a Frankenstein-ish creation named Rocky – a blond, tanned muscleman with half a brain, played with an adorable balance of humor, naivete, and monstrous posing by a buff Adam Turck, dressed only in padded golden booty-shorts –later reduced to a golden G-string – and gold boots.

There are multiple story lines involving sexual exploration, gender, and aliens of the space variety. Hawke’s dynamic direction and the hilarious cast of characters keep the audience laughing. Oh, and because the movie version has become an interactive affair, bags of approved props were available for the audience to purchase, and there was a list of rules of engagement, aka etiquette. An RTP fun bag of props included such items as a newspaper, a rubber glove, a flashlight, a party hat, a playing card, and a small bag of confetti. The program included instructions on when to use, don, or throw each item. There was also an opportunity – which many took advantage of – to join in the show’s signature dance, “The Time Warp,” a sort of line dance with instructions for the steps included in the lyrics. Kate Belleman’s choreography was energetic and even included a spunky tap dance for Anne Michelle Forbes, who played the role of Frank ‘N’ Furter groupie Columbia.

The role of Frank ‘N’ Furter was reprised by Jim Morgan, who played the same role at Barksdale Theatre, now part of Virginia Rep. Morgan was fabulous, with flawless makeup, a corset and heels. Levi Meerovich was deliciously menacing – a perfect blend of horror and comedy – as his loyal servant turned arch nemesis, Riff Raff. The Phantoms were played – mostly danced – by Jet Davidson, Michaela Nicole, Havy Nguyen, and Achille Wangam, and the ensemble was completed by Jeffrey Cole as The Narrator, Kaitlyn Tate as the Usherette who introduced the show and Riff Raff’s sister Magenta, and Carlen Kernish who played the unfortunate Eddie who met an early demise as well as the paraplegic Dr. Scott.

The musical originally opened in 1973 in London where it played successfully for over seven years, and the film version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show,  premiered in 1975 and quickly became a midnight-show cult. The book, music, and lyrics are all by Richard O’Brien. The RTP production has musical direction by Kim Fox. The music was pumping, the voices were soaring, although sometimes I could not understand the lyrics because they were screaming or got lost in the music. But at least half the audience seemed to know all the words, so it didn’t matter and certainly didn’t seem to diminish anyone’s enjoyment. “Sweet Transvestite” and “I Can Make You a Man” were standouts led by Frank ‘N’ Furter, and “Touch-A Touch-A Touch Me,” led by Janet in the second act was outstanding, but “The Time Warp” seemed to be the audience’s hands-down favorite.

Sheila Russ’ costumes were campy and fun, and enhanced by Joel Furtick’s hair and make-up, while Frank Foster’s set was simple and utilitarian. Andrew Bonniwell did the lighting, and I received a message that while Joey Luck had originally been slated to do the sound design for ROCKY it was actually done by Artistic Director Lucian Restivo with Shane Barber as the live mixer for every performance.

So, what’s my problem with it? It’s a well-designed and well-executed musical – and I like musicals. It’s popular among fans and fun for “virgins,” but it just isn’t to my taste. I never saw the movie and do not have any plans to see it, but I did see the Firehouse production in 2012 and it still hasn’t grown on me. So, I hope I have been fair in describing what I consider an excellent production – except for those times when I found the lyrics muddled – and offer kudos to the performers for singing and dancing their hearts out, but I’ll never be a part of the fan club. I felt like something of an alien myself.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: John MacLellan

ROCKY_0404
Jim Morgan as Frank ‘N’ Furter (center) with Katlyn Tate and Levi Meerovich as Magenta and Riff Raff, along with Achille Wangam, Jet Davidson and Havy Nguyen in Richmond Triangle Players’ production of Richard O’Brien’s “The Rocky Horror Show”, running at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre through Oct 26. All performances are sold out. Photo by John MacLellan.

ROCKY_0293
Kaitlyn Tate and Levi Meerovich as Magenta and Riff Raff in Richmond Triangle Players’ production of Richard O’Brien’s “The Rocky Horror Show”, running at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre through Oct 26. All performances are sold out. Photo by John MacLellan

ROCKY_0160
Luke Newsome and Madeleine Witmer as Brad and Janet in Richmond Triangle Players’ production of Richard O’Brien’s “The Rocky Horror Show”, running at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre through Oct 26. All performances are sold out. Photo by John MacLellan.

 

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SWEENEY TODD: A Close Shave

SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: TheatreLab, The Basement, 300 E. Broad St, RVA 23219

Performances: February 14 – March 14, 2019

Ticket Prices: $35 general admission; discounts available for students, seniors, industry

Info: (804) 506-3533 or theatrelabrva.org

TheatreLAB’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a large-scale musical undertaking by a relatively small theater company. And they nailed it!

Director Deejay Gray has outdone himself. The cast, the tone, the pacing, the minimalist industrial set – also designed by Gray – and the intimate setting all work together to create a juicy, gory, bone-chilling evening of theater. I noticed that the program cover says, “TheatreLAB is proud to present Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

The ensemble is led by Alexander Sapp as the vengeful barber and Bianca Bryan as Mrs. Lovett, his landlord and owner of the pie shop that finds success only after adding a special secret ingredient to her meat pies. Both are deliciously intense and over the top. Sapp is unrelentingly manic in his quest for vengeance, after having been wrongfully deported to Australia so a corrupt local judge, Turpin, could take advantage of his beautiful young wife. Bryan is positively chilling in her remorseless determination to win the barber’s affections and advance her failing pie business – which she herself describes in song as, “The Worst Pies in Town.”

But the strength of this production does not rest solely on the shoulders of the two leads. William Anderson, as the corrupt Judge Turpin appears in his first scene with his eyes wildly bugged out, and the next time we see him he is ripping pages from his bible and flagellating himself as he tries to talk himself out of his lustful attraction to his beautiful young ward, Johanna – who is actually the daughter of Sweeney Todd, and sees in the pompous Turpin only a father figure. Mallory Keene plays Johanna with a sweet innocence – except when demanding kisses from her true love, Anthony Hope, or grabbing a pistol to shoot her jailer!

Kelsey Cordrey is an interesting sidekick as Beadle Bamford, the Judge’s lackey. Wordlessly, Cordrey conveys contempt for the Judge, and perhaps even envy and a desire to have Johanna for himself.  Then there’s Audra Honaker who does double duty as the mysterious beggar woman and Pirelli, a rival barber. Interestingly, neither of Honaker’s characters are who they first appear to be, but it is the role of Pirelli that infuses some much needed hilarity into this horror story of a musical.

Matt Shofner charms as the loyal young apprentice, Tobias (Toby) Ragg. Freed from bondage to the flamboyant and fake Pirelli after Pirelli has a visit with Todd, Toby becomes attached to Mrs. Lovett an performs a touching duet in which he promises that nothing can harm her as long as he’s around. Little does he know. . .

The cast also includes Matt Polson as Anthony Hope, the young sailor who saves the shipwrecked Sweeney Todd and befriends him – pretty much against his will, and two musicians who remain onstage and occasionally get swept up in the action. The violinist is Marissa Resmini, and John-Stuart Fauquet on piano is also the production’s musical director. Michael Jarett designed the lighting, and there are plenty of special effects to cover the bloody throat slitting, indicate the bakeshop ovens are working, or create projections on the rear wall. Gray has covered the rear and side walls in industrial strength plastic, making me wonder, on entering, if perhaps the audience might need bibs, like the ones you get in seafood restaurants, to keep from getting splattered with blood. The audience has to walk through the set to get to their seats – and everyone is encouraged to use the facilities before the first act or wait until intermission. With everyone glued to their seats – partially in fear – I don’t think anyone thought of going to the bathroom during the first act.

Needless to say, with its themes of sexual assault, insanity, murder, corruption, imprisonment, incest, and more, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a part of the 2019 Acts of Faith Festival. And several performances are already sold out, so don’t wait, reserve your tickets now – and if you can, sit in the first row.

Oh, and did I mention that the singing is powerful (I could understand most of the lyrics) and the music sounds like a small orchestra, and not just two musicians? Well, it is (lack of clarity may have been due to musical phrasing, I’m not sure) and it does!

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

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