Yes, it’s a play with zombies… with zombies, but not about zombies. THE REVENANTS (playing through March 19 at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center in North Hollywood, www.thevisceralcompany.com) is a mature 90-minute one-act theatrical production that takes a sobering look at how people face their lives and deaths. The venue itself is small but quite comfortable, and the cast keeps you riveted for the evening with just four players, a small basement-styled set and a level of intensity that grabs you within the first few minutes and never lets go.
Carl Bradley Anderson (Gary) and Anne Westcott (Karen) are trapped in a suburban basement after the rise of flesh-eating zombies across the land. Their respective spouses — Lara Fisher (Molly) and Rafael Zubizarreta Jr. (Joseph) — have fallen prey to the plague of the undead, and over the course of a few days the four will be changed forever.
Ever since Justin Tanner’s long-running production of ZOMBIE ATTACK!, stage audiences have come to associate the living dead with bloody comedy: It’s part and parcel of the current “zombiepocalypse” meme, in which people idly speculate on how much “fun” it would be to struggle to survive in a world overrun by shambling monsters. Nothing could be further from the attitude of THE REVENANTS, which returns to a more sober and considered approach to the subject matter. Like the father of flesh-eating zombies, George Romero, writer Scott T. Barsotti and director Dan Spurgeon have chosen to use the idea of zombies as a mirror for people and how they relate to each other. In the end, zombies are us, and we are to a great extent zombies.
Anderson’s Gary and Westcott’s Karen unravel over the course of the show and the catastrophe it depicts, questioning their relationships with their mates and with each other. Gary and Karen aren’t Photoshopped WB manikins, but real people in a terrifying situation. Like the highly effective opening audio presentation, which takes us from a prosaic morning zoo radio show into global horror, Gary and Karen descend from their normal lives into a rawer, more volatile state: The situation peels away their layers until they stand before us in a state refined by grief, fear and anguish. They want to cling to normalcy because, after all, normalcy is nothing more than our lives as we live them. But the terror they face has forced everyone’s cards on the table, and there are hard decisions to make about whether life is worth living and how we know what it is to be human. What are you willing to live through? What can you lose and still return to a normal life again?
The other half of the equation in this production is, of course, Fisher’s Molly and Zubizarreta’s Joseph… who are flesh-eating zombies chained to the basement wall. (We do see them alive very briefly at the beginning of the play, but if you blink, you’ll miss it.) This seems at first like a thankless, pointless job in any kind of stage show. But what the actors do with these creatures elevates them on a par with the better performers who appear onstage as The Mute in THE FANTASTICKS or Snoopy in the musical YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN. They spend virtually the entire evening performing in mime and vocal groans, but they are always engaged in the ongoing narrative, even when they’re not directly paying attention to it, and there is indeed something there in their characters’ rotting brains. Without a word, they embody menace, mystery and even echoes of who they once were and what their relationships used to be.
Where’s My Head FX does a great job with the horror effects, and Michael Sadler and Christine Bartsch’s set is understated in a very good way. Special kudos must go to Ross Patel and John Santo’s sound design, which has many subtle and powerful touches (there are sounds that an astute audience member will catch that the characters in the play will not).
The Visceral Company is an exciting young theatrical company that specializes in bringing intelligent, well-made horror to the stage. Support them and you’ll be glad you did. Go see THE REVENANTS and see that for actual human beings, the “zombiepocalypse” isn’t going to be a happy funtime first-person shooter video game.