Years ago, when he started making movies in the United States, the great director of Hong Kong action films John Woo enumerated in an interview the many similarities between the brand of hyperkinetic shoot-‘em-ups in which he specialized, and musicals.
There’s nothing that revealing in director/fight choreographer Casey Kaleba’s production of playwright/fight choreographer — you begin to see the problem — Qui Nguyen’s Living Dead in Denmark, which picks up the story of Hamlet 1,828 days later. Elsinore has been overrun by zombies, and the self-slaughtering Ofelia (a limber Amy Quiggins) finds herself, like Jean Grey, mysteriously resurrected.
Why yes, it does sound awesome. Alas, an irreverent explication of the Bardic canon it’s not. It isn’t even a genuine parody — just a rickety platform for expired pop-cultural callbacks and a benumbing parade of fussy but low-stakes stage fights.
Rorschach Theatre, one of the more adventurous companies in town, has gone all-out to try make something of Nguyen’s Ritalin-addled mashup of Shakespeare, Buffy-style quippery, and dual handgun-toting cinema. The scorched-Earth set by Robbie Hayes, Brian S. Allard’s purgatorial lighting palette, and Debra Kim Svigny’s punk-anachronistic costumes are all groovy.
Senator, you’re no Joss Whedon: Nguyen takes three of the Bard’s distinct, dissimilar women — Ofelia, Lady M, and Juliet — and makes them all speak in exactly the same withering, self-congratulatory patois. There’s a half-formed existential kernel here — that we are none of us anything more than, like, zombies, Dude – but it’s lost in the din of Nguyen’s hyperactive trainspotting: “Remember this? What about this?”
Sure, we remember. But time is out of joint: The script’s jokes in RE: Brokeback Mountain, “SexyBack,” and Paris Hilton all feel moldier than the 400-year-old play that ostensibly inspired it. And an out-of-nowhere James Bond riff overstays longer than Roger Moore’s tenure as 007.
It’s a statistical inevitability that some of the gags will hit: There’s a sly visual shout-out to the gravedigger scene, and bit from a late-80s doctor dramedy manages to earn a laugh while actually advancing the story.
It isn’t enough. In striving for Shaun of the Dead, Nguyen has wound up with Shrek – a soulless hodge of podge that never alights on a consistent tone long enough for us to care who’s fighting whom, or why. Which, when we find out, is admittedly kind of clever.
A fight scene should spike a story’s energy, not smother it. But here, even the moves that really are risky lack any palpable sense of danger. When Ben Cunis — a regular in the dance-based Synetic Theatre troupe — shows up to demonstrate his legitimately 36 Chambers-worthy skills, he just underscores how pokey everyone else looks. Vampire Cowboys, the New York company that first staged this mess, was founded in part to promote stage combat as a storytelling tool. But these fights don’t tell the story – they stop it undead.
Oh, that this too solid flesh would hurry up and molt already.
Living Dead in Denmark by Qui Nguyen, directed by Casey Kaleba, is at Georgetown University’s Gonda Theatre at the Davis Performing Arts Center through Aug. 23. Run time is approximately two hours including one intermission. Tickets are available here.
This review appears in slightly altered form in today’s Washington Examiner.