‘Zombie: The American’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (Review #2)

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Last night, I found myself transported to 2063, a world in which Africa is one large united nation, the United States is welcoming the first gay president to the oval office, and the White House, now built into Mount Rushmore, has zombies in the basement. I was fascinated by the play’s dark humor and Playwright Robert O’Hara’s ability to creatively capture this politically corrupt and conflicted world with the science fiction backdrop of zombies. Blood and wit made an excellent combination in this political satire.

Sarah Marshall and Sean Meehan. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Sarah Marshall and Sean Meehan. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Written by O’Hara and directed by Howard Shalwitz, the play follows Lord President Thom Valentine (Sean Meehan) as he tries to decide on the best method of saving America from impending war. The Lord President finds himself surrounded by advisors ranging from the Lady Secretary of State Jessica Bloom (Sarah Marshall) to his husband First Gentleman Chase Valentine (James Seol).

This interesting storyline was primarily comprised of subtle notions on the current state of America’s political landscape. However, at the very end of the play, O’Hara took a turn, and decided to hit the audience over the head with his blatant political message. This left me confused due to the clarity of the rest of the play. O’Hara clearly satirized the corruption of the government and their over-reliance on violence.

The creative team for this project put together an incredibly well-crafted production. Set Designer Misha Kachman blew me away with his multi-layered set. The play began with the oval office taking center stage, which was impressively detailed enough. However, when the audience was about to meet the zombies, the office lifted to reveal a basement. Interactions with the zombies could occur on the bottom level while characters continued to have the freedom to roam about the top. Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills enhanced this transition through flashy colors encompassing the stage, emphasizing the science fiction side of the piece.

There were numerous creative staging opportunities for Shalwitz. For example, while Lord President and Jessica Bloom were on the bottom level with the zombies, Chase Valentine and the Royal Chief of Staff (Luigi Sottile) were able to converse on the top level about conspiracy within the White House. The symbolism of conspiracy talk occurring above the secrets in the basement was fascinating, and emphasized the idea that no one could be trusted. Conspiracy could be occurring literally right above the president’s head, and he would never know.

A talented ensemble of actors helped push the witty writing over the top. The three zombies, performed by Tim Getman, Jessica Frances Dukes, and Thomas Keegan, portrayed impressive physical acting abilities through jerky and large movement that emphasized the “undead” feel. In addition, Costume Designer Ivania Stack’s choice to place Getman’s character, Zombie Speaker of Zombies, in clothes resembling those of the “Founding Fathers” highlighted the warning of the play. While the Zombies might seem like monsters, the costumes suggest a similarity between them and those running the country.

Sarah Marshall, Jessica Frances Dukes, Tim Getman, and Thomas Keegan. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Sarah Marshall, Jessica Frances Dukes, Tim Getman, and Thomas Keegan. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Meehan’s approach to Lord President Thom Valentine was interesting as an arc over the course of the play. He successfully showcased the stress of the presidency, and the hard toll the job took on him. It was fascinating watching Meehan’s transformation as he slowly realized the gravity of the choices before him in regard to America’s impending war, and how the wrong decision could lead to horrible results.

Seol beautifully captured the complexity of First Gentleman Chase Valentine. While the character has corrupt tendencies, there is also a sympathetic side, and Seol brought that conflicted nature to life through his mastery of both the serious and comedic elements of the role.

Finally, Marshall’s approach to Jessica Bloom was brilliant, and her comedic timing was spot-on. Her stage presence made her a joy to watch on stage, and I found myself looking forward to the next one-liner every time she spoke.

Bloody, witty, and visually striking, Zombie: The American was an experience I will never forget. O’Hara and Shalwitz created a political satire that remained in my thoughts well after I left the theater. That is a response I rarely have.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with intermission.

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Zombie: The American
plays through June 21, 2015, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

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LINK
SPINE: ‘Zombie: The American’ — the Citizen, the Government Official, the Theatre-goer — at Woolly Mammoth (Review) on DCMetroTheaterArts.