Red Deer College performing arts students Pharaoh Amnesty playing Kate Braithwaite and Nate Rehman playing Will Kemp play out a scene from the Red Deer College production of Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead in Studio A at the Red Deer College Arts Centre.

Play pits Shakespeare against zombie plague

It’s billed as “a true and accurate account of the Elizabethan zombie plague.” In the spoofy and suspenseful spirit of the parody novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the play William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead is coming soon to a theatre near you.

It’s billed as “a true and accurate account of the Elizabethan zombie plague.”

In the spoofy and suspenseful spirit of the parody novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the play William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead is coming soon to a theatre near you.

The dramatic comedy by U.S. playwright John Heimbuch opens on Thursday, Oct. 9, in Studio A of the Red Deer College Arts Centre with the promise of providing plenty of thrilling fist fights, chase scenes and swordplay.

The alternate universe created on stage by Theatre Studies students will be populated by a variety of 16th-century characters, including the Bard and many of the real people he associated with during his lifetime, including Elizabethan actors Will Kemp and Richard Burbage.

The majestic Queen Elizabeth I will also make an appearance, as will wealthy lawyer Sir Francis Bacon.

And did we mention zombies?

The foot-dragging corpses that have been turning up on TV, the movies and at various Halloween parties will also be scaring the wits out of Will Shakespeare and his motley crew.

How does one reconcile Shakespeare and living dead? The play is set in London in 1599, and the renowned acting troupe has just finished staging Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Globe Theatre. The gang is just about to hit the pub for some celebratory ales when they discover the bridge is out.

Further complications arise when one of their number is bitten by a plague-addled madman.

Up to then, the actors had only heard rumours of a vile sickness going around, said Kelly Reay of Calgary, who’s guest directing the college production. “There’s no TV, no Internet, so news only spreads by word-of-mouth.”

As the characters grapple with the imminent threat posed by zombified plague victims, various personality clashes arise. And then Queen Elizabeth, who had to make a detour due to the washed-out bridge, arrives unexpectedly at the theatre, creating more kerfuffle.

The stress of this quarantine situation creates a pressure-cooker environment, said Reay, “People are fighting the zombies off and they are also turning on each other. … There’s a lot of swordplay and hand-to-hand combat.”

While the artistic director of Calgary’s Sage Theatre didn’t choose this play, which he was invited to direct, Reay said of all the productions in the college season, this one holds the most personal appeal.

“It really is a fun, suspenseful thriller and has all the elements: a good story, good characters … it’s got adventure, it’s got fighting, it’s got zombies. Something for everyone.”

The smart 2009 play also has many roles — it requires a cast of 15 second-year acting students, as well as five to 10 extras.

One of Reay’s challenges has been figuring out how to fit all of the actors and action sequences within Studio A. He concluded the zombies will have to be quite slow-moving for the actors to manage to evade them in the limited space.

Challenges for the young cast have been both physical (the demands of all the fight scenes) and linguistic.

A voice coach is tutoring on English accents. Reay said the lines will have some of the cadence of Shakespearean dialogue, but none of the poetry, so audience members won’t need a special aptitude for the Bard’s writing to understand them.

This is archly alluded to in the play when one of William Shakespeare’s friends tells him “Can’t you speak plainly, for once?” said Reay.

There’s a lot of this campy humour, but the director also wants to humanize the characters as much as possible so the audience can identify with them, heightening the suspense and danger.

The well-received play, which has been touted as “an Elizabethan production of bloody proportions” for both Shakespeare and horror nerds, takes advantage of society’s preoccupation with the undead.

Reay believes there’s something infectiously fun (pun intended) about the idea of fighting off zombies. It’s more escapist, for example, than the idea of trying to escape an Ebola outbreak.

“It’s tongue in cheek … and there’s room for imagination,” said Reay.

Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show are $21.80 ($17.80 students/seniors) from the Black Knight Ticket Centre. (1 p.m. matinees on Oct. 11 and 18).

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