Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The Living Dead
Reaves, a Cincinnati native and a 2020 graduate of Northern Kentucky University currently pursuing an M.F.A. at the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop, has been commissioned by the Classical Theatre of Harlem at Lincoln Center and by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati to create original scripts. Cincy Shakes, as it's locally known, sought Reaves out for this project, commissioned him, and developed his script through several workshops. Now it's giving the show its world premiere production, with direction by Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips.
Reaves did not simply adapt George Romero's screenplay into a work for the stage. Instead, he used the tale of a group of people defending themselves from flesh-eating, undead ghouls at a remote rural farmhouse through the filter of some more contemporary storytelling reflecting societal fear instilled by a pandemic. Reaves, whose writing explores a spectrum of Black and queer experiences, has taken the story from a half-century ago and injected contemporary attitudes and prejudices to make it all the more timely–and frightening.
Unfortunately, the production's opening weekend had to be postponed when the actor in the leading role fell ill. For the balance of the run, understudy Adrian Devaughn Summers is playing Ben, the central character. In Reaves' reimagining of the tale, Ben and his boyfriend find themselves lost in the woods in western Pennsylvania. When a ghoulish character lumbers up to their truck and attacks them, Ben bolts. The opening scene is staged in shadows with the actors in the pickup's front end dimly illuminated by a dome light. The scene is backed by a menacing scrim with sinister pine trees looming over them. (Samantha Reno is the scenic designer.)
When the scrim pulls away and the truck is moved offstage, the interior of a quaint, neatly furnished farmhouse is revealed. Barbara (Courtney Lucien), a young white woman, has been pursued by the threatening creatures and found refuge there. She must grope around an unfamiliar, unlit home. When Ben breaks in, convinced he's one of her pursuers, Barbara knocks him unconscious. Once he's revived, they are reticent to trust one another, but eventually team to board doors and windows. With the power back on briefly, they watch news that sounds very much like the confused and panicked media reports we heard during the early stages of the pandemic. As in the movie, the only way to stop the attackers is to shoot them in the head. Ben and Barbara arm themselves and take some heart-stopping defensive measures.
Reaves has added a story element featuring the dreamlike presence of Ben's grandmother, Nana (Burgess Byrd), who fades in and out at various moments, indicated by prismatic reflections and fog. She urges her grandson to do the right thing and be a man. A woman of faith, her urgings have minimal impact on her hysterical grandson whose belief in God has all but evaporated as he sees the undead swarming around them.
Harold (Jim Hopkins) and Helen (Kelly Mengelkoch) emerge from the basement where they've been hiding with their children. He's a racist bully, unwilling to listen to what anyone else has to say and mistrustful of any kind of collaboration, and she's a no-nonsense shrew. Their adopted Black son Tommy (Charles Gidney) also appears, and it's evident he's wary of his stepparents, who seem to have treated him badly. The action is intercut with several sidebars featuring radio news reports, a conservative preacher, and an especially amusing blowhard TV news anchor (Cary Davenport) for "POX" news who claims that the whole disaster is an election-year stunt.
The ensemble cast does a solid job of telling a scary story with several moments of startling terror. A loudly chiming clock and brilliant flashes of lightning convey scene breaks. But Reaves' script comes across as a tad disjointed. It's unclear why Ben's personal guilt over abandoning his boyfriend and his struggles with working with bigots required the overlay of his grandmother drifting in and out. Her presence takes the tension out of a story that should be building tension from start to finish.
It's no surprise that things don't end well for all involved–this is a zombie horror story for the Halloween season. For anyone who loves creepy tales, it will be a satisfying experience. Kudos to Cincy Shakes for putting its full artistic energy into The Living Dead.
The Living Dead runs through October 29, 2022, at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Otto M. Budig Theatre, 1195 Elm Street, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit cincyshakes.com or call 513-381-2273.