At this year’s New York Fringe Festival, we had the chance to compare two book-to-play adaptations by the same author. Joyce Carol Oates’ haunting, psychological horror stories would seemingly make for good theater, and at the Fringe, Bill Connington’s Zombie and Justin Swain and Jess McLeod’s The Corn Maiden provided alternate glimpses of how to approach such a task. In my estimate, the former adaptation, which focused more on the individual and the psychological realm, succeeded more than the latter, which took a more stagy, technological approach, in which much of the complexity got lost. That being said, there was still a lot to take from both productions, and the chance to compare them is a rare privilege.
Zombie would seem to be the less theatrical of the two works, as it focuses on the internal dialogue of a convicted sex offender and deeply disturbed serial killer in the vein of Jeffrey Dahmer. Connington’s adaptation is smart to stick with a monologue, but adds just enough theatricality, with a chess board and a brilliantly ghoulish blow-up doll, to prevent the text from trumping the stage. Connington, who also starred as the killer, Quentin P., gave a legitimately frightening turn – with a flawless upper Midwest accent – of a man who, alienated from his community and his family, and without any outlet for his sexual and human needs (including a need to dominate), aims to create a "Zombie" in the form of a homemade lobotomized slave.
Of course, Quentin botches most of his lobotomies, and here is where his rage and violent tendencies truly show themselves. There’s no doubting that Quentin is psychotic, unfit for society, and a danger to those around him. What is in question, both in the play and the novella, is just how far Quentin’s psychology and psychohistory strays from that of a normal, sane individual, and how much of his twistedness is innate as opposed to society’s doing. The questions are left intentionally ambiguous, and some were overwhelmed by the gross, horrific aspects of Zombie’s text and staging. But unlike your standard horror schlock, there was enough intelligence here to befit a Nobel Prize finalist.
While The Corn Maiden is certainly a more expansive production, incorporating many more theatrical techniques, to me it seemed less enthralling and shallower than its smaller, more modest counterpart. The Corn Maiden focuses on a similar theme to Zombie's: a deeply disturbed individual kidnapping and attempting to kill an innocent victim for a spiritual goal unacceptable in today’s world. But the real heart of the story, the spiritual identification of early-teen girls with ancient American Indian practices, is either diluted with other plot elements or simplified to the point where it starts to feel cheap.
On the one hand, the schoolgirls are rightly portrayed as immature imitators unaware of just how disturbed their actions are. Yet ringleader Jude (Maria Teresa Creasey) could have used a little more back story and a more complete characterization, while her followers Denise (Heather Bonahoom) and Kate Shine (Anita) were reduced to classic henchwomen without any hint of individuality. Meanwhile, we had to deal with a slew of subplots about the kidnapped girl’s mother’s alcoholism, a false accusation against a teaching assistant, and the media’s vulture-like coverage of the story. We get it, the contemporary world can’t handle pre-modern spirituality. With an overly long, overly turgid production and poorly-executed tech design, however, the real substance of the play gets lost.
In adapting a writer as distinctly focused on the inner world as Joyce Carol Oates, nothing says the internal has to be the only focus. But as Zombie and The Corn Maiden both show, that inner world needs to be the primary focus of any such production. That doesn’t necessarily mean that literary drama has to be on a small scale, but it does show that when psychology is key, big budget flash can't substitute for real human drama.
Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates. Adapted and performed by Bill Connington; directed by Thomas Caruso; original score by Deirdre Broderick; lighting design by Joel E. Silver; scenic design by Josh Zangen. Photo by Tony David
The Corn Maiden by Joyce Carol Oates. Adapted by Justin Swain and Jess McLeod. Directed by Jess McLeod; art direction by Nickey Frankel; lighting design by K.J. Hardy; costume design by Wendy Yang; sound design by Sam Brodsky. Photo by Frankel.
Starring Maria Teresa Creasey (Jude), Heather Bonahoom (Denise), Kate Shine (Anita), Hana Kalinski (Marisa), Erin Roberts (Leah), Jessica Day (Avril) and Michael Markham (Mikal)
Both shows have completed their runs at the New York International Fringe Festival.