New life for Living Dead at Rhode Center

notldI must have heard Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” a thousand times before the BREAKING BAD series finale, but when I heard it again as the camera zoomed out on Walter White’s thousand-yard stare, I heard it again for the first time. It was like that today when I saw the Lakeside Players perform NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD based on the screenplay by John Russo and George Romero at the Rhode Center for the Arts in Kenosha.

Chances are better than even that you’re familiar with the plot, but here’s the official synopsis based on Lori Allen Ohm’s adaptation of the script: “Fallout from a satellite probe shot to Venus returns to Earth carrying a mysterious radiation that transforms the unburied dead into flesh-eating zombies. Seven people trapped in an isolated farmhouse, held hostage by the ravenous ghouls, begin to turn on each other as the dead encroach. A gripping terror-filled play that brings all the fright of the cult classic to life.”

You’re not attending the play to find out what happens next, any more than you’d go to DEATH OF A SALESMAN at the Rhode Center next month to see what fate has in store for Willie Loman. You’re going to experience the story, and while it is as faithful to the source material as the venue would allow, interpretations of even the same exact words can be very different, or much more subtly so. Under Zach Wilson’s direction, the script became a real, live (or real dead) experience, vastly different than popping in a copy on BluRay.

The play opens with two zombies knocking down headstones affixed to the front of the stage and crawling out from underneath where most of the action takes place. They walked up the center aisle, and once cleared, Johnny (Hunter Turnaville) and Barbara (Rebecca Vansickle) come bickering down, reciting the lines about the drive that you could probably unreel by rote. No matter how big that screen might be, you’ll never be part of the action like I was watching it at the Rhode Center.

Benjamin Franklin makes his stage debut as “Ben”, the passer-by who appropriates a truck after the disaster at Beekman’s Diner and makes his way to the farmhouse where the action takes place. Franklin is a plumber by trade, but plays the role of Ben so honestly, so forthright, that you are sure his veneer of restraint is about to peel away under the strain of the catastrophe. As they watch the news reports, Ben is upstage tippling from the liquor cabinet, and his hands are shaking. Eyes are elsewhere, but the attention to detail is there, and almost loving.

The stage and costume design are simple, stark, and almost austere. The walls are black, the window frames and doors are white and gray, and all the actors are dressed in black and white–an homage, perhaps to the black-and-white source material, but here serving an artistic purpose: with a binary outcome of life-and-death on the line, the characters navigate as shades of gray. They do not fit in the world in which they find themselves. And that, for them, is very bad news. But for theater-goers, it’s a definite treat.

“Night of the Living Dead”

When: through Oct. 22

Where: Rhode Center for the Arts, 514 56th St. Kenosha

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Tickets: $10 at 262-657-7529 or www.rhodecenter.org

Christian A. Larsen is the author of the novels LOSING TOUCH and THE BLACKENING OF FLESHnow available from Post Mortem Press.
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