A lot of theater artists feel an obligation to speak of William Shakespeare in reverent tones, as if performing the words of The Bard is an unquestionably noble enterprise. Actor and director Seth Johnston, who formed the small Fort Worth production company Drag Strip Courage to stage contemporary works, is refreshingly honest when it comes to the Elizabethan playwright.
“I’m not a Shakespeare aficionado,” he said. “Maybe I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but it makes me go to sleep. When I direct it, I take a ‘groundling’ approach and just emphasize the basics. I figure if I can find it enjoyable that way, a common audience will too.”
Johnston is a drama teacher at Fort Worth’s Southwest High School who’s worked with a lot of North Texas theaters, most recently performing in Crazy for You at Stolen Shakespeare Guild and Woyzeck at Pantagleize Theatre. Drag Strip Courage is set to open John Heimbuch’s 2009 comedy William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead with Johnston as director for Arts Fifth Avenue’s Shakespeare in the Park(-ing Lot) series. As the play’s title suggest, Land of the Dead is one of those literary horror mashups, a genre that includes novels like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Grave Expectations. But Heimbuch’s script, like a lot of those books, attempts to do more than just throw together elements of high and low culture for cheap laughs (though the cheap laughs are there, of course). Land of the Dead is designed to satisfy fans of both Shakespeare and zombie movies with an intelligent and entertaining twist on both canons. First staged at the Mmmmmm Brains New Play Festival, part of Philadelphia’s annual Zombiedelphia event, the play is set in 1599 on opening night of Henry V at the Globe Theatre. In part, the show explores the business and artistic relationship between Shakespeare and Richard Burbage, the actor turned theatrical entrepreneur whose father created the original blueprint for the Globe. Queen Elizabeth and Sir Francis Bacon are also characters, as are a supporting cast of the hungry, shambling undead.
Heimbuch’s play, Johnston said, “does a whole tie-in with zombies and the black plague. It takes all the common fears that a Londoner in 1599 would have about that disease and transfers it to a zombie plague. So it’s sort of based on the facts –– except for the zombies.”
Johnston’s only previous experience directing Shakespeare was a production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which he set among the characters and situations of the Bill Murray comedy Caddyshack. He doesn’t consider himself a big fan of the zombie genre, either, though he does enjoy the critically acclaimed AMC show The Walking Dead, calling it one of the best shows he’s seen on television. William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead attracted him as a theater piece with its smart but unpretentious way of repackaging great historical and literary figures for a mass audience. As a teacher, he was similarly impressed with the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which he said was all the rage a few years ago among high school students performing in UIL (University Interscholastic League) poetry and prose competitions. As a stage director guiding actors through Land of the Dead, he had to seek the help of specialists to understand and recreate some of the finer details of the contemporary zombie mythology.
“There are so many schools of thought on how zombies should walk and what they should look like,” he said. “There are different stages of the zombie ‘disease.’ I had a lot of help from the people at [Arlington haunted house] Zombie Manor. They sent me numerous pictures and suggestions and helped me figure out all the hard stuff.”
Johnston said he deliberately cast the show according to the actors’ particular experiences and abilities. Therefore, performers with Shakespearean experience were tapped to play the Elizabethan historical figures, and musical theater artists who possessed the right sense of camp were cast as the zombies. Previous Land of the Dead stagings in other cities have incorporated everything from gory effects that splattered the audience with fake blood to a live rendition of the dance number from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. In keeping with their low budget and high sense of the ridiculous, Johnston said the Fort Worth version will keep things simple but seasonal.
“Our show will be a good alternative to standing in long lines for a haunted house,” he said. “For ten dollars, you’ll get your fill of zombies and imminent peril.”
William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead
Oct 12-20 at Arts Fifth Avenue, 1628 5th Av, FW. $10.