Hat Trick Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead is an amusing, referential romp — recommended for literary geeks, word nerds and history buffs, who have only two more performances to catch the show at the Straz’s Shimberg Playhouse.
The comedy takes us to the opening production of the Globe Theater, owned by Richard Burbage (Nathan Jokela). The first of its kind, the massive playhouse is theater history’s most famous, built in 1599 by a company that included William Shakespeare (Stephen Fisher) as a stakeholder.
The theater’s commercial draw is actor and jester Will Kemp (Paul McColgan) who shows up with bells on — literally. His crazy getup jingles throughout the play. Shakespeare is annoyed with Kemp for the liberties he’s taken with his scripts, but he doesn’t have time to deal with him. Queen Elizabeth’s famous council, Francis Bacon, pops in with an unsavory offer to help further the Crown’s propaganda campaign.
Before Shakes is ready to deliver a flat no, members of the company start to show up in a zombie state, bleeding and biting, stricken by the necrotic, boil-festering bubonic plague (which inspired vampire and zombie characters to come). Sadly, one of the play’s strongest leads, Kate (Danielle Calderone), the company’s costumer, is bitten by an undead stagehand, and things take a turn for the worse when the Queen and her men arrive seeking safety and the Globe is quarantined.
As usual, fear, claustrophobia, distrust, anxiety and tragic loss disrupt life’s status quo —all-too-familiar allegories of the zombie genre. John Heimbuch’s script borrows from the horror tradition, but, like Shaun of the Dead, wins us over with its allusive hilarity.
Bigger praise goes to director Jack Halloway and the cast. The action sequences are expertly executed with awesome squirts of fake blood, stabbings and sword fights — including an oh-shit-how-did-they-do-that knife throw. One zombie-takedown scene drew enthusiastic applause during last night’s show.
It’s too bad the costumer is bitten so early on. Calderone’s sassy and rebellious spin on Kate certainly merits a kiss or two, one of the most watchable characters of the play. The other lead female, Queen Elizabeth (Christen Hailey), enlivens the show with deadpan hilarity. She’s one part alpha female and three parts menopausal nag. Fortunately for us, Hailey deftly brings out Liz’s searing no-nonsense genius with her undeniably subtle skill.
The performances, fueled by camaraderie and a palpable chemistry, overcome the script's lack of momentum (especially in the second act) — when it feels like Land of the Dead is lumbering aimlessly like a zombie until its biting finale. Those moments of WTF are fairly short-lived. Before the audience’s minds wander to their to-do lists, McColgan’s Kemp springs onto the set and wakes us up with his fantastic sight gags, cheeky quips and snazzy footwork. Fisher’s Shakespeare elicits laughs, dropping references to Hamlet and other Bard works.
It can be argued that the slower points of Act II help flesh out the cartoonish historic figures. We gain a little more understanding on the clash of the Wills — both Shakespeare and Kemp are egoists in their own right but fiercely loyal to each other. Fisher and McColgan’s natural ease with one another sometimes gets the better of them: They become too relaxed onstage. Such lags can be addressed with simple directorial choices and attention to pacing. The play's rhythm is off during a number of scenes.
Kudos to Kristine Garza for her medieval set, complemented by Anthony Vito’s ambient lighting and Joel Haker’s unobtrusive sound design. Gi Sung’s costumes deserve an ovation — especially Queen Hailey's.
Performances continue tonight at 8 p.m. and 4 p.m. tomorrow. Regularly priced tickets are $23. Student/senior/military tickets are $18. Tickets may be purchased by calling 813.229.STAR (7827) or 800.955.1045 outside Tampa Bay, in person at the Straz Center Ticket Office or online at strazcenter.org.