Especially for those who remember George A. Romero’s classic horror film fondly, Rorschach Theatre’s Night of the Living Dead Live offers a fast-paced, funny, amusingly meta adaptation that remixes, parodies, and expands on the original.
Actual scares are few and far between, but Lilli Hokama’s lively production — staged in a converted former retail space on downtown Connecticut Avenue — keeps the zingers and sight gags flowing as relentlessly as the zombie hordes hungering for human flesh.
Romero’s 1968 masterpiece wasn’t the first of the genre to feature undead ghouls chasing after living victims, but, with its startling violence, stark black-and-white cinematography, powerful social commentary, and phenomenal profitability, the movie completely changed the look and feel of horror cinema.
This stage adaptation — originally produced by Nictophobia Films in Toronto, and adapted from the movie script by Christopher Bond, Dale Boyer, and Trevor Martin — opens with the film’s famous final scene, before rewinding to its familiar beginning, set in a graveyard. Siblings Barbra (Mollie Greenberg) and Johnny (Taylor Stevens) are there to lay a wreath at their father’s grave when they’re attacked out of nowhere by a flesh-craving zombie.
The first act pretty much recreates the entire movie, complete with word-for-word dialogue, including iconic quotes like Johnny’s playfully sinister “They’re coming to get you, Barbra.”
The company, and scenic designer Frank Labovitz, have transformed the site into a tightly-seated theater space centered around the creepy wood panel and wallpaper environs of the decrepit farmhouse where Barbra ends up hiding with another frightened soul, Ben (James Stringer, Jr.), armed with his trusty tire iron.
Beyond the genuinely suspenseful graveyard attack on Barbra and Johnny, the atmosphere leans towards tense but teasing, not gory but goofy.
Some in the cast, like Stringer as Ben and Stevens as Johnny, are in on the joke but play the zombie terror relatively straight, while Greenberg as Barbra, and Karina Hilleard as Helen, another hideout in the house, ply the quirky horror hijinks for every laugh they can muster. Hilleard does quite well in that regard. So do Adrian Jesus Iglesias and Andrew Quilpa as, respectively, Sheriff McClelland and his doting deputy Vince.
Erik Harrison as Harry, the hard-edged sexist, racist jerk hiding out in the house, and Sydney Dionne, as campy hippie Judy, offer less assured characterizations, but generally, the cast captures the spirit of good-natured parody.
And, despite unreeling a scene-for-scene adaptation, the show still offers surprises, particularly after the first act wraps up the whole plot of the movie, leaving one to wonder what more could be left for act two.
Alternate endings, it turns out, expand on the plot by re-imagining, and re-examining, elements of the original to uncover, in a few cases, fresh perspectives on how power is distributed among the characters in the farmhouse. The multiple endings play out to diminishing returns, that, luckily, don’t diminish the gleefully macabre sense of adventure in spending a night with the living dead.
Night of the Living Dead (★★★☆☆) runs through Nov. 19 at 1020 Connecticut Ave. NW. Tickets are $20 to $50. Call 202-399-7993 or visit www.rorschachtheatre.com.
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