Land of the Dead

by Jim Rutter

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 24, 2009

Land of the Dead

The real question isn't whether John Heimbuch's William Shakespeare's Land of the Dead (LOD) is good or bad. The real question is whether or not it deserves the frequently heard comparisons to "The Rocky Horror Show."

Judging from audience reaction at both shows, theatergoers love both plays precisely for their moments of goodness and badness - relative terms for anything camp - of which "LOD" offers many. And like the cult-classic musical, most of the crowd who showed up for "LOD" appeared in costume, sporting zombie face-paint, bite marks, and blood soaked skin and clothing (one inventive young woman came dressed as a "zombie Dorothy," complete with a stuffed flying monkey biting her neck).

And like "Rocky Horror," Heimbuch's play offers plenty of undead creatures. Billed as "A true and accurate account of the 1599 zombie plague that spread to the Globe Playhouse," "LOD" opens in the backstage area of Shakespeare's theatre (sharply rendered by Lance Moore's set), moments after the premiere of "Henry V." Former company member Will Kemp (Ryan Walter) sneaks in the backdoor, hoping to join the after-party at a nearby tavern. When Shakespeare (a very whiny Daniel Student) catches him (like a cat, Kemp wears jester's bells), they immediately begin a bitter rehash of why Shakespeare kicked the Falstaff-playing actor out of the company. The peace-making lead thespian Richard Burbage (excellently played by David Stanger) tries to quell their quarreling, but not before reigniting jealousies over his current (and Shakespeare's former) lover Kate (a delicate Molly Casey).

Meticulously researched, "LOD" offers quite a history lesson, and its own (mostly humorous) solutions to the academic speculations on Shakespeare's identity and who exactly wrote all of the Bard's plays. Francis Bacon (the stellar Paul McElwee) tries to convince Shakespeare to put his name on "Falstaff in Love," to which the Bard replies "but what if later, people think that you wrote my other plays" (as some academics do). Throw in a few dozen lines from Shakespeare's collected works (not hard to miss, and the audience can rack up points), the labored appearance of Queen Elizabeth (Tanya Lazar, mostly mimicking Judi Dench's Oscar-winning performance, which isn't a bad thing) and her consort Robert Cecil (Dan Higbee); but despite some well-turned jokes, the production began to teeter on the verge of boredom.

for most of the two-hours, it thrills with kick-ass fighting and sharp (if campy) humor.

And after about twenty minutes, the audience's wait for the zombies was palpable, and they greeted the first arrival of the undead with catcalls and cheers. Burbage quickly dispatched this member of the undead-class, but not before she turned on the crowd and doused them with a mouthful of blood (the theatre provided huge plastic sheets to cover the first three rows). As wave after wave of zombies flooded into the Globe, Shoshanna Hill and Owen Timoney's sharp fight choreography coupled with exploding dye-packs ratcheted the level of intensity back to bloodlust, and the audience - like at any performance of "Rocky Horror"- began calling out their own responses to the lines and cries for more blood, more action, and more zombies.

But unlike "Rocky Horror," Heimbuch's play tries to balance the horror-camp with nerdy history and linguistic debates and an agonizing second half plot. Doctor Dee (Tom Blair) wants to retrieve his liquid metaphysic (undead cure), Bacon demands that everyone stay to protect the Queen, and Shakespeare again vents about his hatred for Kemp and reasons for killing off Falstaff. And while Bill Egan's direction captures the moments of humor (including some fun physical comedy), he can't speed quickly enough through these intervals of tedium and get the zombies back on stage.

Because like it or not, the crowd came to get covered in fake blood while watching zombies and humans maul each other. The rest, to paraphrase the Bard, might as well have been silence, and the Elizabethan-era premise merely provides a bit of fascinating, legitimizing reason for going to the theatre.

But despite the occasional drift into near-boredom, in many ways, "LOD" deserves a comparison to "Rocky Horror," which in any production offers tedious over-camp and disbelief-breaking implausibility (like the ray-gun scene). And while "LOD" may not offer the "Time Warp," for most of the two-hours, it thrills with kick-ass fighting and sharp (if campy) humor.

Plays and Players, 1714 Delancey Street, presents John Heimbuch’s William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead. Directed by Bill Egan, runs until March 28.Tickets and more information at

I'm a former university philosophy lecturer, trained in economics and philosophy. Now I devote most of my free time to pursuing my interests in theater and opera, writing plays and criticism; while still researching and writing in the field of political economy. Currently, and for the past five years, I have competed in the sport of Olympic weightlifting. I live in Center City Philadelphia, where I take in every production or performance that my schedule allows. I do have a website: