Encore Michigan

World Premiere: Zombie invasion at Purple Rose is something to see

Review June 20, 2015 David Kiley

2azArticle:9871; Posted: June 20, 2015 at 12:30 p.m.

There are zombie people, and non-zombie people. Just like there seems to be Star-Trek people, and non Star-Trek people. Heck, there are even “theater people,” and “non-theater people.” Those whose eyes glaze over or feel a sharp jab in their temple at the mere mention of “zombies,” though, ought not to be put off by the subject matter of 2AZ (second year after zombies), which is having its world premiere at The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea.

Yes, there are zombies on stage at times, and there are killings and blood. But the un-dead really serve merely as a back-drop for an extremely well written story by Michael Brian Ogden of conflict, pain, humor and mettle-testing of a band of survivors of a worldwide plague that has resulted in a two-year war between humans and zombies.

Some 70% of the world’s population has turned zombie following a plague that, big surprise, the government knew about for years before it erupted into an apocalypse. One bite from one of the un-dead—usually a huge chunk of flesh that kills almost instantly—and then the victim will come to a bit later in a zombie state. The drama that surrounds two women, Rachel and Kelly, a father, Jeff, and his daughter, Kristina, as well as two special forces soldiers and a botanist is one of survival, journey (they are on foot across country) and inner conflict about right and wrong.

The actors under the direction of Guy Sanville are riveting and deliver Ogden’s brilliantly paced, crackling dialogue with humor, genuine fear and deeply felt pain. My only quibble was with Lauren Knox’s (Kelly) fabricated Boston accent. Yes, she is meant to be from Boston, but the accent just wasn’t working right half the time. Lose the accent and nothing is lost. It was the only distraction from her otherwise fine and steely performance as the bitchy, wise-cracky center of the band. Rhiannon Ragland is a vibrant, sexy, almost comic-book cool Rachel, who provides both muscle and tenderness. She has an almost Lara Croft quality, and kudos to Sanville for casting her and Knox, because their physical chemistry on stage works perfectly.

The biggest stars of the show may be set designer Gary Ciarkowski, lighting and projection designer Noelle Stollmack and sound designer Tom Whalen. The Purple Rose was brilliantly (I don’t throw that adjective around easily) transformed into a space that has you utterly believing this band is moving on a fight-for-their-life journey from the Southeastern U.S. to Colorado Springs. The depth of space is created by a beautiful and imposing ivy-covered woods down-stage, a campsite patch that can be anywhere, and a screen in the center of the ivy that delivers shadows of zombies or video that was shot in the Michigan woods of the zombies. The synchronicity among staging, lighting, projection and sound in 2AZ was a thing of great achievement, especially in a space as small as the Rose. I’d love to see it on a larger stage to see how it plays, but the intimacy of the Rose theatre gave it a special energy that might get lost in a bigger space.

Katherine Nelson’s costumes and Danna Segrest’s props are not to be overlooked, though amidst such a big production, they might be. These are folks traveling light with what they have been able to forage, from an abandoned Cabela’s maybe. It’s all spot-on for where they are and what they are doing. Blood and wounds that appear after a zombie bite worked effortlessly. The actors had great stuff to work with here.

It’s easy to get caught up with the women on stage, as they are physically striking and often dominate scenes. And that goes for newcomer Nina White (Christina), who holds her own and then some with these strong women. A tough, funny teen clearly wanting to assert her cred, she is the daughter of Jeff (David Bendena) who balances his vulnerability (the women are stronger than he is) with his deep capacity to care and want to protect all of them, if only he could. Drew Parker (Porter) and playwright Michael Brian Ogden (Channing) play the special-forces shepherds with grit and comedy, and terrific line delivery.

The ensemble of zombies is not to be taken for granted. They have no lines, of course, but their movements and killing scenes could have gone off the rails. To the contrary, their movements and presence, whether in shadow or lunging about on stage was exactly the right menacing back-drop of the story without taking it into being campy. Michelle Mountain as the President of the new territories that have formed since the war began, thrust into the position to lead the remnants of the Federal government and armies, hits all the right notes as a grieving mother and leader of what’s left of the free world who is trying to figure what is right from wrong herself. She doesn’t have much stage time, but what there is…is choice.

David Daoust does a quick and jolting turn on stage as Billy, a slaver who represents the worst element of the post zombie apocalypse world, but written by Ogden as a pretty layered character who also delivers a screed directed at those in the South who embrace the Confederate flag that could have been ripped out of this week’s headlines, yet wasn’t.

Ogden’s gift for dialogue is very much on display. An artist in residence at Purple Rose, he has previously penned “Bleeding Red” and “Corktown.” It’s not easy to do what Ogden does, which is to write dialogue the way people actually talk. He not only gets the bricks right, but the mortar as well that holds it all together.

The scenario and set up for the group is a familiar one, played out in such films as “Back from Eternity,” “The Thing,” and even “Predator” when you get right down to it. But familiar scenarios work because they…work. “Us against them” drama, and figuring out where the boundaries and standards of behavior are when our backs are against the wall—that is a universal scenario that never really gets tired or overdone, as long as it is done as well as in 2AZ.

Purple Rose Theatre
137 Park St., Chelsea
June 11–August 29, 2015
Evening performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.
Matinees Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and Wednesdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
Price: $15.00-$42.00

photo credit: Sean Carter Photography

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