The popular platitude to the contrary, sometimes you actually can judge a book by its cover or — in the case of theatre — a play by its title.
Where a Copenhagen or a Metamorphoses could have just about anything for their subject matter, a play entitled William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead wears its plotline and its purpose clearly on its sleeve. Like the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, W.S.’s LotD seeks to cash in on the current popularity of all things zombie by mashing the shambling, moaning brain-munchers up with classical literature, or at least one of classical literature’s most famous authors.
The results, regrettably, are mixed at best. As an admitted fan of zombie lore, from Romero’s 1968 classic to the most recent season of The Walking Dead, and an ardent admirer of Shakespeare’s works, I sit squarely in the bulls-eye of the target demographic for William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead. Even so, though it has its moments, in the end it left me, like its zombie hordes, cold.
Interestingly, the high points to which I just alluded all arise from the Shakespeare material rather than from that of the arisen dead. Verily, with its many Elizabethan jokes and its novel take on the early days of Shakespeare’s
career, William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead will appeal more to Bard-philes than to votaries of the zombie apocalypse. Like Seth Grahame-Smith’s take on Jane Austen’s tale, W.S’s LotD tells more or less a straightforward, parodic story about Shakespeare punctuated with the occasional zombie attack, attacks that occur with too little frequency, matter too little to the plot and almost feel like an afterthought calculatingly included to appeal to a broader audience.
In the universe of this play, Shakespeare has yet to write his most celebrated works. Still, many of ol’ Will’s timeless lines from those yet-to-be-penned classics are paraphrased or quoted outright, usually amusingly out of context or with winking prescience. Along with the phrase-dropping, William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead gets playful with the conspiracy theories regarding whether Shakespeare really wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. As a main character, Sir Francis Bacon demands that Shakespeare pretend to have authored a play that Bacon himself wrote, and the Earl of Oxford and Christopher Marlowe are cheekily name checked as well.
The play opens on the night of the inaugural performance at the Globe Theatre and ends the morning after. Aside from some bickering between Shakespeare and his frenemy, Will Kemp, regarding the ratio of buffoonery to solemnity appropriate for quality theatre, the only real conflict in William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead is between the zombies and the small band of uninfected humans who barricade themselves inside the theatre as the rest of London burns. The perfunctory plot leaves only two questions to be answered: Who will survive and how will they manage it? Unfortunately, the program notes spoil the answers, robbing the play of what scant dramatic tension it might otherwise have had.
As always, the Theater Company of Lafayette throws itself wholeheartedly into the production. Both its theater and its budget may be tiny, but this company’s passion and commitment are without equal, and its continuing dedication to bringing new and unusual theatre to Boulder County is commendable.
TCL is very much the little theatre company that could. Its choice of play with William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead turns out to be questionable, but such is life.
Playwright John Heimbuch clearly sought to ride the wave of zombie mania with this play, and the Theater Company of Lafayette obviously agreed with his strategy. Though TCL’s execution is as good as may be expected, the play itself is too slapdash and inconsistent to be overcome. I don’t know if zombies have jumped the shark, but William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead (whose full title continues A True and Accurate Account of the 1599 Zombie Plague) feels decidedly late to the zombie party.