Transferring George Romero and John Russo’s screenplay for the iconic low-budget 1968 horror film “Night of the Living Dead” to the stage is something few theater companies would try. Adapter-director Brian Newell has not only done so; he’s created something wholly fitting for live performance that delivers, in 65 minutes, more than its fair share of terrifying moments, even for those familiar with the film.
Seven people are trapped in a Pennsylvania farmhouse fending off waves of attacks by a veritable army of cannibalistic zombies, supposedly triggered by radiation from a satellite just returned from Venus. As the characters frantically try to overcome a hopeless situation, each period of calm is shattered by a zombie charge, each more lethal than the last. Newell carefully choreographs the bloody, terrifying mayhem, punctuating his script with instances of dark humor and using a pulse-pounding music track to heighten each shock. After stupendous special effects that include two huge blazes, a massive explosion, and the entrance of a pickup truck onto the stage, the final onslaught occurs, leaving just one surviving protagonist, whose grim fate Newell duplicates from the film version before adding his own unexpected twist ending.
Not surprisingly, the technical and visual elements are the stars here, and the production doesn’t disappoint, starting with Newell’s special effects, set, lighting, and sound, Heidi Newell’s costumes, and most focally Jax DiBenedetto’s often astonishing makeup. Through changes in greasepaint and apparel, the 10 actors playing zombies are continuously recycled so as to appear to number into the dozens, an astonishing and effective illusion.
While the characters are pretty much stock figures who take a back seat to the zombies and mise en scène, the proceedings would be tiresome without decent performances. Newell’s principals create credible personalities and reactions for their characters. David P. Lewis presents an older, better-dressed Ben than the blue-collar versions of earlier Maverick Theater iterations of this show. As with previous Bens, this one is smart, pragmatic, stoic and heroic, but Lewis also shows him as less militant and more calming and nurturing. Hannah Butcher’s Barbara is defined by sadness over her brother Johnny (Rob Downs) having been attacked and killed by a zombie.
Previous Maverick stagings have been plagued with weak performances by those portraying the selfish, arrogant, stupid Harry Cooper, but David Chorley’s cynical, bossy, cowardly Harry is one of the best things in the show, his nastiness and sarcasm used to generate both suspense and laughter. Cassandra Cade highlights Helen Cooper’s frustration with her schmuck of a husband. As sympathetic young couple Tom and Judy, Nate Vestri and Annamarie Mayer are blandly likable but little else.
While the assaults are spectacular, the pacing of the material that comes in between desperately needs tightening. Still, this impressive staging delivers where it counts: in violence that’s shocking and viscerally frightening.
Presented by Staged Cinema Productions at Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Suite B, Fullerton. Sept. 28–Nov. 3. (714) 526-7070 or www.mavericktheater.com
Critic’s Score: A-