Call it a “plague of maddening blood lust,” or blame it on afflicted “humours.”
But William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead opened on Thursday with ample moaning, groaning, and foot-dragging as victims of some mysterious “affliction” began scratching at the door of the Globe Theatre in London — apparently dying to get in.
And those snarling, pasty-faced gate crashers weren’t even the most campy characters in this well-executed Red Deer College Theatre Studies production that’s running in Studio A of the RDC Arts Centre.
There’s a ruff-necked Queen Elizabeth I (excellently played by Emily Cupples), whose plummy accent was delivered in a high-pitched drawl reminiscent of another Elizabeth Rex we know.
There’s the Queen’s Counsel, Sir Frances Bacon (Rina Pelletier in a remarkably androgynous performance), whose pomposity was matched only by his pretension. (“An ixillent idea,” Bacon intoned, before stabbing a zombified actor with his rapier and leaving others to dispose of the body.)
And there’s Shakespeare’s ragtag company of thespians, including James Burbage (Richie Jackson) and Will Kemp (Nate Rehman), who were — well … capital-A actors in the truest sense.
Kemp is such as ‘look at me! look at me!’ grandstander that he actually wears bells to announce his entrance. Even Will Shakespeare is fed up, kicking Kemp out of the company and becoming dismayed at his reappearance at the beginning of this thriller, which was written by U.S. playwright John Heimbuch.
But Will soon has to deal with more pressing issues — London Bridge has fallen down, prompting an unexpected visit from the Queen and her entourage in the midst of a bizarre plague. Suddenly there are bigger dilemmas than ridding himself of his nemesis, Kemp.
William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead proved to be both an interesting and perplexing amalgam at Wednesday’s dress rehearsal.
There was flowery Elizabethan language aplenty, including punny verbal throws to various Shakespearian plays that made followers of The Bard knowingly chortle.
There was a sword fight, and adequate gnarling, biting and Halloween zombie gore to appease fans of shows like The Walking Dead.
But at the same time, this wordy play also featured a long period of inactivity in the second act in which Will Shakespeare (played in low-key, straight-man style by Evan Macleod) remained motionless and tied to a chair. The only other actors on stage, Burbage and the Queen’s alchemist, Doctor Dee (Erin Pettifor), were either starting to dose or were already asleep — so it’s a wonder the audience members didn’t opt for a little shut eye, too.
Fortunately, this scene that seemed so out of place in an Elizabethan world turned on its head by a “plague of blood lust,” was followed by a satisfying finale involving (yay!) more zombies.
But what really saved the day was the talented company of second-year students, under the guest direction of Kelly Reay.
This was one of the best-acted college plays I’ve seen in a long time. The young thespians weren’t afraid to go big and create some satisfying, memorable characters — such as the aforementioned Queen, Bacon, Kemp, Burbage, as well as the young apprentice actor John Rice, who’s cast in female roles in the company (and is mind-bendingly played by a woman, Robyn Jeffrey).
While a couple of people could slow down and deepen their voices to be fully comprehended, we could mostly sit back and enjoy this wacky, house of horrors ride.
Another bonus was the intimate theatre space. Studio A was decked out in fabulous Tudor-style by set designer Cindi Zuby, and lush Elizabethan costumes by Donna Jopp also helped transport us back to the 16th century.
Plagues have come and gone throughout the years, with the latest real-life fears centring on West Africa’s Ebola outbreak.
Since no epidemic is ever going to be as fun as a plague of zombies, you might want some escapist thrills by checking out William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead. (It’s especially for lovers of The Bard and/or the living dead.)
The play runs to Oct. 18.