Zombie Reality Show

If you’re looking for a spoof or feel-good heroics in a zombie setting, Uncle Vanya and Zombies is not the play for you. The dystopia that director Markus Wessendorf dredges up crawls around in your mind long after the play ends. With stark realism he uses the zombie genre to contemplate human culpability in basically effing up our environment.

Despite the production’s amusing title, Wessendorf’s post-apocalyptic portrayal of Hawaii after a nuclear submarine accident, “Pearl Harbor II,” is no ha-ha fare. His zombie-land is set in the blood sport arena of a reality game show, but here the carnage is literal.


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The host of ‘Theatre Masterpieces and Zombies’ (Walt Gaines) looks on as Yelena (Kyle Scholl) attacks Vanya (Alex Rogals). Photo by Reese Moriyama

Wessendorf sat down with A&S to talk about his play … and somehow zombies sound even more exciting when you’re hearing about them in a German accent.

Is this Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, but with a few zombies thrown in?

It’s an adaptation of Uncle Vanya. I was asked to come up with my next project last year, and then Fukushima (nuclear power plant disaster) happened and I wanted to do something that related to that. Fukushima was important to me because in 1986 when Chernobyl happened I was in Bavaria studying theater. I was living with a group of students, and we were growing our own tomatoes and vegetables, but we had to throw everything away for the next one-and-a-half years. I was looking for a play that would be classical but relate to environmental concern.

I’ve always been intrigued by zombies, and there has been this recent return of the zombie with a vengeance. Newt Gingrich was referred to as a zombie candidate. People talk about zombie economics, zombie banks and bankers, zombie computers. I’ve also been interested in zombie walks. We just had a Zombie Crawl in Honolulu. I teach performance studies, and the zombie walk is an interesting type of community performance. The first one happened just one month before 9/11. It started in Sacramento, and now it’s in Manila, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Peru, all over Europe, United States, Canada. The largest zombie walk had 9,600 people in Mexico City. What’s this fascination of people all around the globe? I think it has to do with globalization, economics, anxieties, global warming. I think in this country it has to do with 9/11, the Iraq war, the 2008 recession. The Walking Dead season 3 opener was the largest basic cable channel episode ever in the history of cable, with 10.8 million viewers. That’s enormous for a show that’s really gory and brutal.

How do zombies reflect society’s anxieties?

There was a zombie walk during Occupy Wall Street in 2011. In this country, I think zombies represent what they originally stand for in the popular American zombie genre, which was created in 1932 in a film called White Zombie. It’s a slow-moving, apathetic, trancelike, non-aggressive, non-cannibalistic zombie. It’s basically free labor. It’s someone who is kind of dead but who is exploited by working the cane fields of Haiti. I think that’s one of the connections why zombies are back – what the zombie stands for is the 99 percent. It’s anyone who got laid off, outsourced. When I was looking for a play, I felt that because of Chernobyl, it needed to be a Russian play. Uncle Vanya is one of the first plays in the Western dramatic canon that deals with environmentalism. The interesting thing about Uncle Vanya is it also deals with the 99 percent versus 1 percent conflict. We have the professor from the big city, who has exploited his relatives (who live on a rural estate) for the last 25 years, visit. The relatives do slave labor for him. Then we have Dr. Astrov, who is this kind of environmental activist. I thought, wow, this is the ideal play.

The other thing that has intrigued me is the mashup genre. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – the idea of bringing together these completely different genres. What would that mean if you were to do it on stage? Not many people have done it, or if they’ve done it, they’ve done it poorly. You have the Zombie Prom musical (and an assortment of other live shows that incorporate zombies). The zombie in films is a scary figure. In theater, there is a tendency toward camp and to lose any sense that this is a horror genre. One of the ideas (I was working with) was how can you integrate zombies into a theater production and maintain the scariness?

Did you accomplish that?

Spoiler alert! … Let’s not go there (watch a preview at zombievanya.wordpress.com). This production is happening because of strong grassroots student support. There’s this generational conflict. I don’t think anyone in my age group really gets it, but you talk to an undergrad … Students were very outspoken that this is the first production I wouldn’t think twice about auditioning for.

For info on pre- and post-show chats, panel discussions, related readings, film showings, a presentation by prominent zombie scholar and author Kyle Bishop, and a public talk with no other than Walking Dead’s lead actress Sarah Wayne Cal-lies, who has roots in Hawaii, visit hawaii.edu/kennedy/2012/vanya.

the TICKET stub

When: Nov. 9-10, 15-17 at 8 p.m. and 18 at 2 p.m.
Where: UH Kennedy Theatre
Cost: $13-$24
More Info: 956-7655 or hawaii.edu/kennedy