Purple Rose Theatre debuts thought-provoking play about zombies

For as long as humans have told stories, there have been cultural obsessions with monsters. Not long ago it was vampires, but lately it’s been zombies.

There have been countless pop culture versions of zombie stories, and the newest offering into that oeuvre is a new play at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre.

2AZ, which means two years after the zombie apocalypse, was written by veteran Purple Rose actor and playwright, Michael Brian Ogden.

“What I feel like has largely been missing from the genre is a sense of self-awareness, the idea that no one in the story, prior to the zombie event, has ever heard of a zombie before,” says Ogden.

“If we’ve all been watching these same movies, and we all joke about them in the same way, if tomorrow you were walking down the street and saw a zombie, you would know that it was a zombie and hopefully you would take appropriate action. So, how in a world like that, how can it reach such a problematic scale?”

The play’s cast of sixteen is one of the biggest the Purple Rose has had and it’s remarkable how high the quality of the acting is across such a large group. Each character has shining moments of triumph or despair and each actor rises to his or her individual challenges.

Purple Rose mainstays Rhiannon Ragland, Michelle Mountain and Ogden himself deliver especially layered, fierce performances. And among many seasoned pros, newcomer, Nina White, more than holds her own as a young teen who is trying her best to adjust to her new life and assert her “street cred” with the adults.

Even the supporting cast boasts actors who have played lead roles in other Purple Rose productions. Rusty Mewha and Robert Najarian for example, have probably ten minutes and four lines between them, but they make the most of them.

The set, lighting, and sound design also played starring roles. Gary Ciarkowski‘s set looks like a wilderness camping spot, and there is a see-through screen at the back of the set. Vines simulated a thick, dense jungle-like forest, enhanced by misty and sometimes eerie lighting from Noelle Stollmack, surrounded it.

Much of the violent zombie action occurs behind the screen and there are some great effects when the zombies, silhouetted behind the screen, and the actors, in front of the screen, mime fights in dance-like synchronization. Sound designer, Tom Whalen, has chosen folk, rock and blues songs from the 60s, 70s and 80s, with The Beatles featured prominently, to provide the show’s evocative soundtrack.

Ogden has a gift for witty and natural dialogue and the play balances action and touching storylines, each enhancing the other. During poignant moments we’re waiting for something to go horribly wrong (and sometimes it does) and action sequences often lead to sweet, sad or even funny scenes.

The proceedings are frequently unpredictable and shocking. Ogden keeps the audience on the edge of their seats throughout. For a play about such a potentially shallow and overdone subject, 2AZ is in fact deep and thought provoking.

Mountain says, “If you look at the world as a whole… it’s pretty awful in a lot of places; it does sound like there are places where this story is happening, minus zombies.”

What makes 2AZ greatis how, besides zombies, it’s also about family, survival, and the struggle to figure out what matters most and what lengths we might go to in order to get back to a semblance of the life we knew before.

2AZ plays through the end of August. Student tickets are $18.


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