Zombie: The American is a marketing department’s dream—touching on political commentary with cheeky humor and more than a splash of the undead, it looks and sounds like a show that would bring Washington’s government staffers and hipster populations together for a night of good, absurd fun.
A new work by Robert O’Hara and developed by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company over the past year, the play traces the diminishing fate of our fair nation, roughly 50 years down the line. A flood has done away with the entire East Coast, displacing the Presidential office to somewhere in Mt. Rushmore. Some financial bailout from Britain has us using new titles for our nation’s governance, and the President is now regarded as the Lord President.
The discovery of new energy resource Cotton XP has reignited a kind of gold rush out west as thousands clamor for the valuable new mineral. And, oh yeah, the President is gay, his staffers are all clones, a united African continent has risen as the new global superpower, and the big secret passed only between America’s Commanders-in-Chief is that there are actual zombies lurking around the basement. You know, just as Fox News might have you believe.
Unfortunately, the image and design of the production paint a much sleeker, clearer image than does the play itself. It’s the age-old dilemma with new work – a well-prepared production of a not-quite-there-yet play.
Under the direction of Howard Shalwitz, the show manages to impress, in certain ways – the cast does a remarkable job bringing this world to life; the costumes (designed by Ivania Stack) are exquisite, from the gold-embroidered Presidential pantsuits to shredded zombie rags; and the set (Misha Kachman) is nothing short of extraordinary with a Presidential office that flies from orchestra level to balcony, and a playing area that encompasses much of the Woolly theatre space.
The core problem is that Zombie’s recipe of half-satire, half-prognostication leaves us with the feeling that as we’re mocking the things that are legitimately wrong with our country, we’re also diminishing the things we’ve been getting right.
It’s absurd that America has been forced to negotiate an alliance with the zombies who live under the Presidential residence. It’s absurd, too, that when a staffer accidentally assassinates a world leader, the US government attempts to clone her so the incident may go unnoticed. Audiences are presented with a spectrum of absurdity, critiquing America’s stance on international diplomacy, its overuse of technology, and its lust for valuable natural resources.
ZOMBIE THE AMERICAN
May 25 – June 21
Woolly Mammoth Theatre
641 D St NW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $50 – $68
Tickets or call 202-393-3939
But we also have a gay President, the female President he succeeded, and Africa as the new global superpower to reckon with, which (to my progressive mind) don’t quite fit under the satire rubric. Perhaps they were thrown in for conservative audiences to laugh at, but together, these messages come across as too many and too muddled. (Maybe the playwright’s attempt at bipartisan satire?) To buy into this world feels somehow like a vote against the strides our country has made, as the play suggests these things are on par with the rabid pursuit of wealth and natural resources, flagrant abuse of technology (just wait ‘til you see what the First Husband uses clones for) and the zombies.
Where the play does triumph is in its performances. The only non-Woolly company members, Sean Meehan as Lord President Thom Valentine and James Seol as his First Gentleman, Chase, offer strong comedic performances as they fumble through their term in office. Equally laudable is Sarah Marshall’s hilarious portrayal of Lady Secretary of State Jessica Bloom, who barks and stares her disapproval at nearly everyone she encounters. In a feat of costume and makeup magic, Jessica Frances Dukes, Tim Getman, and Thomas Keegan portray both members of the American government and of the zombie one (the award for best business card, I think, must go to the Zombie Speaker of Zombies), reiterating how the two populations aren’t as different as we’d prefer to imagine.
Overall, the zombies in this play eat not just brains, but livers, intestines, lungs, arms, tendons, hearts, and faces. Yet it is the script itself that seems to have bitten off more than it can chew.
Zombie: The American by Robert O’Hara . Directed by Howard Shalwitz . Featuring Sean Meehan, Sarah Marshall, James Seol, Dawn Ursula, Tim Getman, Jussica Frances Dukes, Thomas Keegan and Luigi Sottile . Lighting design: Colin K. Bills . Set design: Misha Kachman . Costume design: Ivania Stack . Sound design: Ryan Rumery . Fight Choreography: Robb Hunter . Video design: Aaron Fisher . Wigs and special effecs: Jenny Cisneros . Dramaturg: Miriam Weidfeld . Stage Manager: Maribeth Chaprnka . Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jen Clements.