Die, Bard

By Paul Wozniak

MSU show mixes splattered blood and clever word play

What if the Black Plague of the 14th century turned the afflicted victims into zombies and the Review world’s most famous playwright wrote a show about it? That’s the basic premise of “William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead,” a genre mash-up penned by John Heimbuch for fans of The Bard. But the production directed by Christina Traister for the MSU Department of Theatre feels like a wellintentioned misfire that plays up broad, slapstick humor from a script packed with dense and more serious language.

Andrew Head plays Shakespeare, portrayed here as a spineless servant of the queen’s court. He struggles to keep his actors in line and buys scripts from the likes of Francis Bacon (Caleb Wolfe). But when the zombie horde keeps barging through the door, Shakespeare has to decide whether to be bitten or not to be bitten.

Depending on the performance, you may or may not be able to comprehend the dialogue over shrieking audience members as zombies stumble through the aisles. That’s a shame because Heimbuch’s script (like a real Shakespeare show) derives much of its humor from witty wordplay and banter over slapstick sight gags. But given the general makeup of the audience, gore is more and the action scenes — along with the fountains of blood — are plentiful.

As elaborate and creative as Zev Steinberg’s fight choreography is, an important detail feels amiss: Zombies in this world apparently need not be killed by a blow to the head. To be fair, the play never actually addresses the lumbering abominations as “zombies,” but for consistency’s sake, it feels like an oversight.

Like their horror movie brethren, the technical elements in “Land of the Dead” overshadow the play itself. Scenic designer Daniel Hobbs’ Globe Theatre replica within the Pasant Theater space is stunning, as are Chelsea Lucas’ makeup effects. Among the visual illusions are bones that appear to protrude from legs and one actor’s jaw that seems to hang from her skull.

The story and dialogue, however, simply are not broad enough to be understood over a sea of hecklers shouting at the stage. There are far more accessible guilty pleasures in the zombie genre that meet the same desire for bloodlust. Then again, few (if any) feature Shakespeare as an action hero.

“William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead”

MSU Department of Theatre Through Sunday, Oct. 20 7:30 p.m. Wednesday- Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday- Saturday; midnight Friday; 2 p.m. Sunday Post-show discussion Thursday. Oct. 17 $18/13 students (800) WHARTON whartoncenter.com