The Zombie Opera - Extras: meet here

Evenings in Quarantine - Zombies and Zombie Lovers: Meet Here

Evenings in Quarantine: The Zombie Opera had its sold-out opening night on Friday, October 15th. This was the word I received on Thursday night, having been privileged to attend the final dress rehearsal along with other local influential journalistic voices. There are only five scheduled performances: October 15-16 and 21-23; I wouldn’t be surprised to see some more added on.

To start things off, there was just a movie screen, with the show’s logo projected onto it. Then a woman came out in an official show t-shirt, welcoming the audience, warning us that prop guns would be fired during the evening, asking that no cameras be used, checking to see if there were any children in the audience. While she might have been out there just for the dress rehearsal, I’m inclined to believe that she was indeed part of the show, and, therefore, an homage to the way The Rocky Horror Picture Show, both the original stage show and the subsequent film, used to start out, albeit minus requests not to throw food at the screen. No one yelled insults at her, either; then again, this was just the dress rehearsal.

Next came what is commonly referred to as the “Overture,” the usual purpose of which is to introduce the musical themes that will appear throughout the show. Here, they called it “Prelude,” and seemed more inclined to setting an overall mood–the solo piano had that foreboding, minor-chords, get-ready-for-the-scary-stuff attitude about it, and I think they processed the signal, too, to make it sound like it wouldn’t have been out of place behind some scratched, flickering, black and white, obscure silent Lon Chaney epic. More homage? I think so. After all, we already know the show is about zombies, for Karloff’s sake—the audience is expecting blood, gore, and dismemberment, so why not throw in another nudge and wink?

Co-lead / co-writer Bonnie Bogovich, in the role of Ronnie, then took the stage, by herself, having, amusingly, a cell-phone conversation with her unseen father. I can’t help but wonder if the show’s creators heard the same NPR piece I heard a few months ago, about how in today’s horror movies, the characters’ cell phones must now be taken into account—either they’re destroyed, lost, or the action takes place in a dead area, but it does now have to be established that dialing 911 is not an option as Jason and his friend the machete head your way. I digress. The terms “zombie” and “opera” seem incompatible enough in the same breath. Throw in “opening scene” and “cell phone” and we’ve really veered off into uncharted territory. What the hell kind of an opera starts off with a cell-phone conversation, whether it’s about zombies or some twisted re-imagining of Don Giovanni? Answer: a modern-day one–I think they just wanted set the time as the present day.

(Later on, they made a point of noting that the Internet was down in their hideout. See above paragraph.)

That one little opening image really worked for me. I wonder if I’m reading too much into it.

The other co-lead / co-writer, Elizabeth Rishel, playing Izzie, and Drew Fogle, playing Charles, soon entered, introducing us to the two leads and one major supporting part and setting up the story, leading to more singing–lots more singing. I mean that admiringly. It’s opera, after all. People are walking around on a stage singing instead of talking like normal humans. The absurdity of the art form is an integral part of the performance.

Bogovich and Rishel spent a lot of time on stage together, which stands to reason, as it’s their show. They complement each other well as performers. I was reminded, incongruously, of the two women in the B-52’s—two singers who do a good job of playing to each other’s strengths. Rishel seemed to have the task of nailing all the high notes, and from my untrained perspective, she pulled it off well. She also seemed to do less of the acting. Bogovich, on the other hand, didn’t threaten to break the windows as often, but her heart was the one I could hear beating more loudly.

In my opinion, the art form works best when the absurdity is pushed out to the extreme. So they got more extreme. It had already been established that Oakland is the epicenter of the zombiequest. Why Oakland? Why not Oakland? (John Waters movies all take place in Baltimore—they wouldn’t be John Waters movies anywhere else, would they?) Oakland has a lot of parks and city streets, suitable for mob scenes and general gruesomeness. Perhaps Part 2 of the franchise can take place in the trailer parks of Butler County, perhaps not the cul-de-sacs of the North Hills suburbs, but right now, we’re in Oakland, folks, and it’s time for a newsflash!

Another mandatory invasion-movie scene, probably ever since Orson Welles commandeered New Jersey in The War of the Worlds, is the news broadcast. The writers had fun with this, too, as they began to work in even more wildly surreal prepared video images. Besides many shots of nameless zombies staggering here and lurching there, we were treated to the first of several vignettes featuring the Newmanesque David Egyud in the archetypal role of “The Newscaster.” In a series of set pieces interspersed at key intervals throughout the show, he became progressively more disheveled and bloodstained, although, miraculously, his singing never declined. (Oh yeah—it’s an opera.) The Channel 8 logo was conspicuously present in the corner of the screen during these fictional broadcasts—I thought for sure that Channel 8 must have been a sponsor of the project or something, but I just checked my program, and see no mention of them. Could have been worse—they could have plugged the Fox station….

They wasted no time in introducing their next stock character, The Mad Scientist, “Professor Thalamus” (yuk yuk), played by Dustin Wickett. In the Q & A session that followed the show, it was revealed that this character was a specific tribute to the film Re-Animator—I missed the connection myself, even though I’ve seen the movie, but now that they called my attention to it, I can see they did a nice job with it, even down to the physical resemblance. He had a few spear carriers standing around with him in their regulation white lab coats (one on a laptop, of course, to remind us we’re in the present day) as he spelled out his fiendishly demented scheme, about to go horribly out of control due to his arrogance and hubris, Vampira help us all…This part had the first really good joke of the night: “I’ve got the brains (Get it? Brains? Disembodied organs?) to solve this problem,” even though his malevolent cackle could have used a little more work.

Hey, where was the Igor figure? Surely, some zombie could have shambled by and deployed a nice, semi-coherent, “Yes, Master” as this humble reviewer scribbled away in the darkness? Doesn’t anybody care how I feel?

More footage of zombies engaging in their morning tai chi as the morning sun peeked over our beloved Pitt Tower. It would have been funny to see four or five of the undead standing in line at Pamela’s, but not really in the spirit of things, alas.

Things got a little feverish here, as the mob footage increased in intensity, even incorporating split screens and mother-and-child interviews. What do we do NOW? Call Ghostbusters? No, the cavalry. (Cue Wild West music—a gag the original Star Trek used once or twice.) The writers pointed out in the post-show debriefing that in invasion flicks (zombies, aliens, Tea Partiers, whatever) there’s always the part when the dudes in uniforms get called in with their bazookas and grenade launchers to save the teeming hordes, only wither away as Godzilla’s fiery exhalations vaporize the barricade doors. The song, “Red and the White” was especially powerful here, with its repeated line, “It’s the Army / They’ll protect us.” Was this intended as commentary on current goings-on in the Middle East? It wasn’t spelled out explicitly, but I couldn’t help but wonder this as the implied flag-waving took on an unsettling edge–the sense of a general populace not having much of a clue at all about what the military is up to and can or cannot do, just lulling themselves to sleep at night in ignorant bliss, hoping it all just goes away? Perhaps “It’s the Army / They’ll protect us” is just another way of saying “Here we are now / Entertain us.”

Meet Stock Character #3, The Heroic General, played to the hilt of the ceremonial sword by the avuncular Kevin Hayes as Commander Fletcher. For my money, Hayes gave the best all-around performance of the night, filling the room with a rich, full baritone while nibbling just the slightest edges of the scenery. He’s probably old enough to be the parent of anyone else in the company—good casting, in my view. He seemed to stabilize the cast, as well as his character placed the other characters at ease. (One could argue he does for Bogovich and Rishel what Bela Lugosi did for Ed Wood.) My favorite throwaway line of the night was his, as some action moved off the stage: “I’ll be there in fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive.” It got an especially big laugh from the audience.

One more stock scene before intermission: The End of the World Party. All hope is lost, we might not live to see the dawn, so let’s bolt the doors and tap another keg. This scene was pretty well owned by SC#4, Lead Party Chick Angela, played by Emily Swora, with just the right touch of bitchy cluelessness, even if she didn’t sneak out into the woods to go skinny dipping by herself so the boogeyman could get her, as her character is supposed to do, according to The Laws of Suspension of Disbelief. (I do wish she had sung a little louder, however.) Another penetrating critical mind in the audience pointed out a Dawn of the Dead musical reference in this scene, which I missed, so I’ll give credit where credit is due.

Charles closed Act 1 with more or less a solo piece, for me, the high point of the show so far. That’s exactly what the last song of the first act is supposed to do—build everything up to a crescendo and a cliff-hanger, but leave us wondering what’s going to happen next.

The show’s program jokingly slaps a “CLASSIFIED BY ORDER OF THE U.S. GOVERNMENT” sticker on the “Synopsis” page right at the end of Act 1, so I’m going to stop there, too. I’ve given less away than they do to the people reading the program before the show starts, anyway, so nobody can hang the “spoiler” tag on me.

Too bad The Newscaster didn’t get to take a bow at the end—maybe they could project a vid of him during the curtain call? Or how about bringing him in as just another nameless zombie on the stage, then letting him reveal the bloody tatters of his shirt and tie as the crowd roars its approval?

After the show, Bogovich and Rishel made a point of saying that “There’s a lot of talent in Pittsburgh without a lot to do.” They feel especially fortunate that they were able to utilize so many local sources to bring their show to the stage. They claim not to have known, for example, about Specter Studios in Lawrenceville, which ended up becoming their “official “Limbs and Weapons Sponsor”—whatever it is that Specter Studios does, I’m sure they don’t mind the PR. They and the many other creative minds behind Evenings in Quarantine—The Zombie Opera see their work as much more than a simple performance piece. Their hearts are in Pittsburgh, living or undead.

The Zombie Opera: I'm not dead yet sign from the intermission area

The Zombie Opera: I'm not dead yet sign from the intermission area

The Zombie Opera: The doctor is in

The Zombie Opera: The doctor is in

The Zombie Opera: Q & A

The Zombie Opera: Q & A

Follow the show on Twitter and like it on Facebook for updates.

Read the interview with creators Bonnie and Liz.

Update: Extra show added to the schedule!
Wednesday, Oct. 20 {get tix for this date}