Review: ‘William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead’ by AGL

The cast of Actors Guild's production of William Shakespeare's Land of the Dead includes Marshall Manley, left, as Richard Burbage, Pete Sears as Will Kemp, Daniel Morgan as the queen's guard and Sharon Sikorski as Queen Elizabeth. Actors Guild photo by Hilary Brown.

The cast of Actors Guild’s production of William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead includes Marshall Manley, left, as Richard Burbage, Pete Sears as Will Kemp, Daniel Morgan as the queen’s guard and Sharon Sikorski as Queen Elizabeth. Actors Guild photo by Hilary Brown.

We are in the midst of a little backstage drama at William Shakespeare’s new Globe Theatre in 1599.

The debut performance of Henry V has just concluded, and there are some congratulations, a lot of griping and colorfully spoken drama. Suddenly, a company member pops in, but he is far from himself. He’s lurching, his face is disfigured, and soon, he is chomping on someone’s arm.

ZOMBIE!

Well, no one says “zombie,” because that word was not around in 1599. The Elizabethan characters, including Queen Elizabeth herself  (Sharon Sikorski), conclude that this is a plague and lock themselves up in the Globe, much like Rick Grimes’ people take refuge in the prison on The Walking Dead.

And if you follow Lexington theater much, you know there is only one playhouse where you could see this: Eric Seale’s Actors Guild of Lexington.

To an extent, theaters become reflections of their artistic directors’ sensibilities, and Actors Guild has certainly reflected Seale’s interests theatrical (David Mamet’s November), cultural (The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs), and historical (The Love Song o f J. Robert Oppenheimer).

The good thing is Seale’s preoccupations are broad and interesting, so he is by no means wearing people out with his point of view. But knowing his love for Shakespeare and pop culture, Seale was the prime Lexington AD to program and direct William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead by John Heimbuch.

Horror and historical/literary mash-ups have become all the rage these days, with Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

Heimbuch’s script is essentially a vehicle for the conceit. There aren’t really any great truths to be relayed or story to tell as much as Shakespearian dialogue and historical humor to string together the zombie attacks.

And, of course, the people who are well need to figure out how to fend off the zombies.

As the title character, Tim Hull has the most to work with. Through the ordeal, Shakespeare grows from being a sullen tool of the powerful in England to more genuine self-confidence. He finds that he can work with artists who initially threatened him, including tiring Falstaff actor William Kemp (Pete Sears), and stand up to bullies of the monarchy, such as Francis Bacon (Matt Seckman).

Seckman has the showiest role, save for bloody-faced zombies, trying to use Shakespeare’s work to advance his own concerns and burnish his position with the Queen. Quickly, the audience is rooting for him to be bitten.

The better you know your Shakespeare and Shakespearian history, the more you will be rewarded by the play, which constantly drops Shakespearian dialogue from all characters’ mouths.

Land of the Dead is a technically ambitious show from several standpoints. Costume designer Natalie Cummins has to outfit a much larger cast than usually traipses across Lexington stages, Jason Tate has numerous fight scenes to choreograph, and the makeup is elaborate and extensive.

The zombie action is a bit varied, from the docile Walking Dead types to some crazed, ravenous killers. Purists might demand more consistency.

But this really isn’t a show for purists of any stripe. It’s fun, and in his tenure as AGL’s artistic chief, we know that Seale likes to have fun.

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