Zombies just won't stay dead - even when, as in this case, they're not zombies. Which is perfectly appropriate, since Leif Gantvoort's hysterically horrific play The Afflicted, currently presented by Theatre 68 in the back of the NoHo Arts Center, is a resurrected and revamped version of his 2006 production, They're Not Zombies. Fortunately, far from being a pale, lifeless version of its former self, shambling about mindlessly long after the final curtain should have fallen, the 68 Cent Crew's production of The Afflicted is lively and electric in its new venue, its strengths intact and a few new virtues added.
The essential story remains the same: After an outbreak of unexplained mass murder, a small group of survivors gather in a church and try to figure out what to do next. Some character bits and gags have been added, so even if you were lucky enough to see the 2006 production, you will be in for a few surprises. The play's connection to Night of the Living Dead has been slightly downplayed; although George Romero's name is mentioned more than once, you will need a quick ear to note that the character names were taken from the cast of Romero's 1968 film.
Nevertheless, the dynamic of The Afflicted is strongly influenced by Night of the Living Dead: the threat outside is largely a catalyst for the drama inside, as the representatives of humanity prove themselves incapable of setting aside personal differences in order to form a cohesive group that can withstand the onslaught. In one of the play's funnier gags (a new addition, if memory serves), a take-charge character arrives, immediately improving the prospects for survival. Unfortunately, former alpha males Karl (Gantvoort) and Cop Guy (Jeremy Luke) seem less pleased than threatened by the newcomer, who provides too clear an example of what they have failed to be - competent and engaged with the situation, instead of busy arguing with each other. This leads to a punchline that seems partially cribbed from the 2006 film Feast (regarding the fate of the "Hero" character), but it's still funny.
The difference between The Afflicted and Night of the Living Dead is that, in Gantvoort's play the long-running argument is not about whether to hide in the basement or make a run for help; it is about whether the mindless killers outside are - or are not - zombies. The point, as nearly as one can extract it from the apocalyptic mayhem that ensues, is that when confronted with inexplicable chaos, people will resort to familiar explanations, even if those explanations defy logic. "Zombies" may sound incredible, but no more so than any of the other theories proposed: biological terrorism, super soldiers created by the Chinese, etc. By playing the zombie genre card and then trumping it, The Afflicted jolts the audience with a disturbing shock: unlike Scream, in which knowing the genre conventions could help you survive, the "rules" as we have learned them in countless films do not necessarily apply in real life, leaving us lost and helpless in the end.
So much for the existential horror of the situation. The Afflicted works as a straightforward black-comedy-thriller, thanks to quick pacing and engaging performances (especially Ariel Hart, whose barely contained adrenalin-fueled hysteria is not only palpable but also sustained long past the point that seems physically possible). The basic strategy of the script is that the characters are ensconced in a building with only two entrances (not counting the door to the basement), and as the audience's attention is focused one of them, a threat unexpectedly enters from the other. The tiny theatre is so small that this distraction would seem impossible to achieve, but director Danny Cistone somehow pulls it off - most notably in a lethal case of mistaken identity that is both shocking and hilarious.
Amid the laughter, there is plenty of bloodshed, very convincingly displayed - including a head-shot or two, and some eviscerated intestines. Patrons in the front row are provided with ponchos to protect their clothing from blood-spray - a gesture that emphasizes the intimate nature of this particular theatrical experience, with viewers literally inches from the action, which sometimes spills over from the stage area and starts to clamber into the aisles. Never has the fourth wall been broken so memorably, when the zombies finish off the on-stage victims and turn toward the audience - only to break into a rousing rendition of Michael Jackson's "Thriller."
Hollywood Gothique sorely misses the Theatre 68 Haunted House, on hiatus this Halloween because of the theatre group's move to its new home at NoHo Arts Center. Fortunately, The Afflicted is as good a substitute as we could want. And if you want to turn it into a double bill, afterwards head a few blocks south on Lankershim Boulevard to visit Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre for Urban Death: Tour of Terror.
The Afflicted continues at The NoHo Arts Center on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm through November 16. There will be a special Halloween night performance at 10pm. The address is 11136 Magnolia Boulevard, North Hollywood, CA 91601. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Click here to get more info at their website.
Update: a performance has been added for Thursday, November 14.
- Playwright – Leif Gantvoort
- Directed by – Danny Cistone
- Produced by – Ronnie Marmo
- Set and Sound Design – Danny Cistone
- Lighting - Matt Richter
- Leif Gantvoort as Karl
- Jeremy Luke as "Cop Guy"
- Ariel Hart as Judith
- Perry Smith as "Rich Bitch"
- Daniel Hutchison as the Priest
- Shelly Jacco as Tamara O'Dea
- Eddie Alfano as "Douchebag"
- With: Ed Cosico, Christopher Kelly, Femi Longe, Tanya Wilkins