Qui Nguyen’s multimedia pop-culture romps have grown more and more impressive as serious comedy as each one gets produced. Living Dead in Denmark is an early work I’d never seen, but although I’d sworn off seeing shows at the Gene Frankel Theater, seating-wise perhaps New York’s most uncomfortable venue, I made an exception for the new production by Just Kidding Theatre. It shows that the adventuresome playwright responsible for “Soul Samurai” and “The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G” hadn’t hit his stride back in 2006, when the original Vampire Cowboys production of Living Dead in Denmark hit the stage.
Living Dead is a mashup of Shakespeare characters with a zombie narrative, spiced with an unmistakable frisson of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It has clever moments, and some funny lines that made me smile, but they’re all in the service of a muddled plot about a confusing war among humans, zombies, and magical/supernatural beings (Titania, Puck, Caliban) that never quite gels.
Jesse Gabriel as Caliban. Photo by Sue Nordstrom courtesy John Capo Public Relations.
Too, the new production does the work few favors. Like Joss Whedon, Nguyen loves to turn standard character types inside out. His hero here, Hamlet‘s Ophelia, having been revived from a supposed coma she went into after (not quite) drowning, and finding herself in the midst of the abovementioned conflict, is no wilting flower but a brash perky ninja suddenly blessed with enviable martial arts skills (much like the freshly popped vampires in Buffy). Well and good, but the talented Krissy Garber doesn’t find the exquisite balance of cartoonishness and intensity needed to make a Nguyen fantasy-comedy role come alive; too often her efforts to be larger than life just come across as overacting, and I could say the same for much of the rest of the hardworking and fundamentally able cast. Peripheral characters like Caliban (a very funny Jesse Gabriel) and the Pythonesque Wyrd Sisters actually make a more solid impression than the leads.
The sets and costumes are appropriately rough-and-tumble, there is some amusing fight choreography and swordplay, and cast members have scenes and moments that show their skills exceed the quality of the overall production. Kimberly Nordstrom’s Juliet stands out as a main character who does approach full comic-book integrity, mostly because she takes the pitch down a notch.
The bright moments that amuse but don’t add up include Caliban struggling with a Rubik’s Cube (comedy) and Laertes digging fruitlessly into the wooden floor trying to find his sister (pathos). These represent the two sides of an extraordinary imagination that wasn’t yet fully baked in this early work by a playwright who has since evolved into one of the top talents of the Vampire Generation.
Living Dead in Denmark runs through April 21. For tickets visit Brown Paper Tickets.