Theatre Review: To Zombify or Not to Zombify, That is the Question


Note: This review was posted on the KC Stage review system.

Hamlet Vs. Zombies, written by Jeff Jenkins  and Bryant Turnage (based on the play by William Shakespeare), directed by Jeff Jenkins. Produced by The Skinny Improv (part of the KC Fringe Festival). First produced 2011. (Seen July 25, 2011.)

It’s amazing how much of the plot of Hamlet can be used for a zombie film. In fact, for the first few moments, after the creepy John Carpenter-esque electronica preshow music fades away, we actually get a good chunk of the first scene of the longest of Shakespeare’s plays — that is, until the (un)dead king decides to visit poor Barnardo and Francisco.

Anyone with even a basic knowledge of Hamlet knows the basic plot of this piece — except here, Claudius (played with brilliant ‘evil villain’ glee by co-author Bryant Turnage) didn’t just kill the “once majestic, now maggot-ridden monarch”, but used the man as an experiment in a plot worthy of a George Romero film.

Hamlet vs Zombies photo
Photo by Rich Sutton.

The show is filled not only with references (and, of course, actual quotes) from Hamlet — including several to Hamlet’s … uh … ‘relationship’ with his mother (“Oh, Hamlet, why do you keep looking at your mother like that?” Hamlet gives as one of the many things his father nags him about) and the wonderfully awful “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead/undead!” joke, but also with quite a few to various zombie (and zombie-esque) movies, including 28 Days Later, Zombieland, I think all the Romero films, and even a small shout out to Shaun of the Dead. (And I think — in Hamlet’s plot to ‘catch’ the undead king — having Horatio wear a “Eat My Brains: it is Tasty” t-shirt is a reference to Jonathan Coulton’s song “RE: Your Brains”, but that may just be me hoping.)

In fact, in the ‘play to catch the conscious of the king’, Hamlet (played by Eli Kurtz) has the players (well, the remaining alive ones, anyway — long story) re-enact a couple of basic zombie plots, so they can determine what types of zombies they’re actually encountering.

Kudos to the ‘special effects’ of using large pink confetti to portray the blood splatters, and having Hamlet give some of his soliloquies via his cell phone camera is such a brilliant idea, if I direct Shakespeare again, I’m stealing that idea for myself.

Almost all of the actors shine on stage, playing their various parts with the duality of the actual part in Hamlet and the part they’d play if it was a zombie movie with great aplomb. Kurtz as Hamlet and Jeff Jenkins as Horatio get a special note, as if they weren’t on their game the whole show, it would fall apart faster than a zombie’s head. The only minor issue I had was with Jake Young, who never seemed to take off as Polonius — maybe it was nerves? (And his vomiting scene went on a little too long for the joke.)

In fact, the second part of the show is where the joke starts to fall apart. Like the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it gets a little old (although I felt this held up much better, maybe because it IS Hamlet after all) — and I’m not just saying that because they made fun of Slither. The dramatic pauses start getting longer and longer, and the show (like Hamlet itself) is just a little too long for my tastes.

However, that’s a minor quibble in a funny take on Hamlet, and I will give the compliment that I would love to get my hands on this script. There weren’t many people in the audience when I went, and I’d hate for this show to go unnoticed. If you’re a fan of Shaun of the Dead or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, you don’t want to miss it. It’s a clever zombie comedy that made the 90 minutes it plays almost fly past.

Hamlet Vs. Zombies plays five more times, and tickets are $10. For more information, visit the KC Fringe Festival website.

Read all of my Fringe reviews here