imitating the dog haven’t tackled a film before, but George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is the perfect vehicle for the company’s innovative blend of theatre and digital media. The concept is simple: an ensemble of seven performers attempts to create the classic film shot-for-shot live on a stage, while the film plays on a screen above. The execution, however, is anything but simple, and the resulting theatrical experience is a tour de force that manages to be both a virtuoso display of technical and choreographic skill, and a surprisingly moving enhancement of the original film’s social implications.
The company has four cameras at its disposable, ranging from large steadicams to hand-held devices to fibre-optics for miniature work. The promise to recreate the film shot-for-shot is, surprisingly, not an exaggeration. The seven performers not only play the characters, but also film one another from the exact same angles (or as close as possible) as the film. At its most complex, this leads to dizzying displays of multi-tasking, including one moment where a performer plays a newsreader from the neck up, while holding a camera at waist level which is filming another character’s reactions to watching the news.
The precision is staggering, as both performers and camera operators move quickly to their marks and strike the appropriate pose and angle in time for shots that sometimes last a fraction of a second. The chaos of the stage – with several shots being filmed or set up simultaneously – is clarified in the right-hand screen above the stage, which gives an edited live feed that matches the adjacent movie screen with surprising accuracy. But there’s also a great amount of comedy. Especially in the second half, when there are more characters meaning a more complex arrangement of blocking to allow for two-shots, the performers position themselves in uncanny angles in relation to one another, making themselves available for the camera rather than recreating the implied naturalistic blocking of the film. At times, performers might duck to the floor so that a reaction shot can be filmed over their heads, before twisting back into place for a fresh angle.
The style offers an interesting practice-based commentary on the differences between stage and film acting. Here, the craft of the actor is on display as they set themselves up for isolated moments; in between their shots, however, they are camera operators or moving into place. There is no arc for the actor, no continued psychological exploration of a single character. Indeed, while most performers have a primary character, they also double as many others; and many characters are played by multiple actors. The central role of Barbara is, for much of the first half, played by two actors in identical wigs and costumes, to allow for the company to catch her from different angles. Film acting fragments the individual, severing them into moments and positions and reactions, but denying them autonomy and development. In this sense, the film actor becomes a kind of zombie, moving through the motions at the behest of an invisible power (here, time as marked by the irrevocable linear movement of the source film).
This of course isn’t to imply that the cast aren’t excellent; in fact, they’re extraordinary. Not only are they acting and filming simultaneously, but they’re also recreating bad performances, most hilariously in Will Holstead and Adela Rajnovic’s turn as teenage lovers Tom and Judy, who have a hilariously mannered conversation. The cast don’t play it for laughs, but comedy is inevitable as they start shuffling around as zombies and having fights; and the use of small models for long shots, with zombies on sticks growling and shuffling in groups, is clearly hilarious. And every now and again there is subtle meta-theatrical commentary on the performances; at one point, one of the actors playing a newsreader continues in her role when not speaking, walking to the front of the stage and glowering as she waits for her line, before putting on a breezy smile to continue reporting on the horrors.
For much of the production, Night of the Living Dead – Remix can be seen as a technical showcase for its own sake; but it becomes clear that there’s more going on here. Across the screens that make up the three walls of the set – which regularly show hand-drawn perspective sets against which the actors are shot – the production regularly flashes contemporary footage of historical events. Newsreaders offer reports on the assassinations of JFK and MLK, and speeches by John, Martin and Bobby Kennedy are played out as well. At times the interruption of this footage creates profound effects – during the hurling of molotov cocktails, the screens start showing footage from Vietnam; and when the militia starts heading out to shoot zombies, there’s another cut to US forces in Vietnam. But the production builds to a climax where, as Ben waits in the house, the last survivor, he begins delivering lines from Kennedy and King’s most famous speeches as images of the men flash up on screen, presaging his murder by the white militia with reminders of the sacrifices made in the pursuit of the civil rights struggle. These are subtexts embedded in the original film, but to see them turned into main text here gives the whole endeavour purpose and clarity. It’s a powerful end to a compelling and dazzling production.