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‘Uncle Vanya’ rides zombie wave
BY STEVEN MARK / email@example.com
“I surrender. Here you have me — now, eat me.”
— Astroff, from Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”
Astroff had better watch out. In “Uncle Vanya and Zombies,” the latest production of the University of Hawaii at Manoa Theatre Department, he would get exactly what he’s asking for.
The play, which premieres today, is the latest takeoff on zombie mania, a genre that not only refuses to die, but with each revival seems to become more powerful than one could possibly imagine.
‘UNCLE VANYA AND ZOMBIES’
Where: Kennedy Theatre, University of Hawaii at Manoa
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 9-10 and 15-17, and 2 p.m. Nov. 18. Pre-show discussion Nov. 9, 16, 17 at 6:30 p.m.; post-show discussion Nov. 16
Info: www.hawaii.edu/kennedy or 956-7655
Also: A panel discussion on “The Zombie Renaissance: Hidden Meanings of Pop-Culture Texts,” featuring experts Kyle William Bishop, Katie Brennan, Alohalani Brown, Brooke Hutchins, John Friend, Jairus Grove and Cindy Ward takes place 5 p.m. Saturday at the UH Art Auditorium.
UH theater professors warned colleague Markus Wessendorf about the short shelf life of most pop-culture trends when he made his proposal last year to do a zombie/pop-culture/classic-literature mishmash using Chekhov’s gloomy melodrama about the frustrated love lives of the Russian intelligentsia.
“When I pitched the idea of ‘Uncle Vanya and Zombies’ to my colleagues, everyone was telling me, ‘Markus, be careful, that wave may already be over before fall 2012,’” said Wessendorf, who remembers being “traumatized” by the zombie film “Dawn of the Dead” as a teenager. “But the zombie wave has not subsided at all. It’s probably stronger than ever.”
Wessendorf noted that cable TV’s “The Walking Dead” just opened to the highest rating ever, that filmmaker Joss Whedon recently produced a political ad with a zombie genre, and even the federal Centers for Disease Control has a page about dealing with zombies — using the threat as a vehicle for some real-world cautions in case of massive emergency.
Zombies have also resurfaced in adaptations of Jane Austen novels, as well as in dozens of films and TV programs.
“UNCLE VANYA and Zombies” heaps pop-culture reference upon pop-culture reference: In a post-apocalyptic world, nuclear disaster at Pearl Harbor has decimated Honolulu and sent zombies scurrying around town. In the wake of that disaster, a reality TV show based at UH’s Kennedy Theatre (renamed for its new benefactor, conservative industrialist Charles Koch) finds ratings nirvana by staging classic dramas with amateur actors and releasing zombies into their midst. The winner — read that, survivor — gets the chance to leave the island.
Viewers will see a play within a play — the circumstances surrounding the staging of the play, plus an updated version of “Vanya” with action set in a mob safe house, rather than a poor professor’s country estate.
“You get the whole play, but what happens is, the further we get through the play, more chunks of the dialogue have been gobbled up by zombies,” Wessendorf said.
Wessendorf, who took a year and a half to create the production, said there is a message behind the madness. He chose to base his work on “Vanya” because along with the theme of unrequited love and unfulfilled lives, it also has an environmental theme, as expressed by a character who soliloquizes about the disappearing forests.
Wessendorf is a native of Germany who was living in Bavaria during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Memories of that time — he had to destroy his homegrown vegetables for years afterward — resurfaced after the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant last year and prompted his interest in adapting “Vanya” for his production.
“I really wanted to do a classical play that could be used in a way that it could deal with environmentalism,” he said.
Wessendorf also wanted to take a stab at the zombie genre, seeing a theatrical challenge rarely pursued in trying to bringing the horror of un-death to life.
“No one really ever tries to include zombies in theater productions in a way that maintains the original scariness of the zombie genre,” he said. “It’s usually just camp.”
Much as he tried, Wessendorf concedes with a laugh that he couldn’t avoid that completely.
“I have to say, of course, the production has campy elements, but it also has really gut-wrenching moments,” he said. “There is an emotional depth to it that you wouldn’t expect from a play called ‘Uncle Vanya and Zombies.’”