Original Run Dates: August 18 – August 26, 2012
Location: Theater on the Square, Indianapolis, IN
Run Time: 60 minutes (approx.)
Let’s face it: getting an advance preview of anything just plain kicks ass. Whether you’re one of a select few to get to see a new movie, read an advance copy of a book, or even hear a band’s music before the album is released, it just makes a body feel special.
Ratchet that honor up by several levels if you’re ever invited to see an advance preview of a live stage show, as it doesn’t normally happen often – folks in theater work hard to get everything prepared for the “official” opening night, often making tweaks, changes, and revisions right through the final dress rehearsals – so why give someone a preview of what may not end up being the finished product?
So, you’ll imagine my surprise and humbling gratitude when I was invited by writer/director Nick Shoemaker to get a “sneak peek” at his brand-new show, JFK vs. the Undead, created for the 2012 IndyFringe festival, a weeklong festival held in Indianapolis that showcases independently-written and produced one-act stage shows about a variety of diverse and creative subject matter.
JFK vs. the Undead sports an intriguing premise. It is set in an alternate-history 1960s where chemical warmongering between the United States and the Soviet Union has gone awry and given rise to “Radioactived Demonic Undeadness.” As the show’s introductory narrative newsreel indicates: “Experts report some-to-no evidence that Radioactived Undeadness only affects persons predisposed to demonic possession due to evils committed while alive. Symptoms of demonic predisposive lifestyles include: suicide; liberalism; homosexuality; incest; debauchery; being of a color other than white, eggshell, ivory, or puce; drug addiction; obesity; and bestiality.” A quick creative reimagining of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination allows JFK to be resuscitated and Six-Million-Dollar-Manned as The Defender, a sword-wielding, cyborg-ish zombie killer with an odd penchant for imitating Christian Bale’s “toughie Batman” voice. As is usually the case when the walking dead are present, especially those that are self-proclaimed as an “undead army of Zommunists…” madness ensues.
This being the lone zombie show of the IndyFringe festival, how could I possibly turn down the honor of seeing it before it opened to the public? So, already feeling honored and excited, I got to the theater for the late-night showing (it is the undead, after all – did you expect them to be out on the town before 11:00pm? Me neither). I went from “quiet gratitude” to “full-on shock and awe” as I realized I was the lone audience member. That’s right: yours truly is the only person on the planet who was not directly involved with the show to get the chance to see it before the public.
I suppose I can take a few moments to stop talking about my inflated sense of ego and give you the alt-historical Score:
G: General Entertainment – being only about an hour long, the show is fast-paced and fun, not leaving much room for many slow scenes or low-action points. The beginning of the show does get a little bogged down with the delivery of such a detailed back-story, but lengthy bits of newsreel audio are hilariously offset by an over-the-top performance by Zack Joyce as everyone’s favorite bureaucratic cross-dresser, J. Edgar Hoover (replete in his fishnets and assorted other women’s under-things as he addresses the crowd). Both cast and stage sets look remarkably good for such a “short-run” production (more on this below), and the overall experience is a thoroughly enjoyable one. 8/10
O: Original Content – For the moderately-large influx of recent supernatural-against-dead-presidents stuff (see both book and film of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and the movie Abraham Lincoln versus Zombies to name just a few), this show still feels unique, like because no one has really tackled the JFK era yet. With his assassination and illicit goings-on with Marilyn Monroe, is 50 years to soon to satire it? This reviewer says nay. The zombies themselves, while doing a fair share of eating the people that they don’t like, don’t seem to necessarily be motivated by braaaiiinnnsss, and that’s a welcome change from the norm. I’ve often thought that intelligent zombies should be motivated by something greater, and in JFK vs. the Undead, the audience gets that in spades, particularly through the actions of the reanimated and calculating Lee Harvey Oswald and the girl-without-a-heartbeat-still-looking-for-love Marilyn Monroe (played very effectively by Brandon Alstott and Betsy Norton, respectively). Calling the show a “musical dramedy” is a bit of a stretch, as JFK only features four songs (re-worded parody versions of DC Talk’s “In the Light,” Rhianna’s “Disturbia,” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” both straight and as a slowed-down ballad), but for a show that’s only an hour long, I guess you’re not exactly expecting a full soundtrack either. 7/10
R: Realism – Even though it’s a political story set in the ‘60s with zombies and a biomechanical President, things seemed fairly believable here; credit Shoemaker’s story-telling abilities, even if the plot did get a little convoluted and hard to follow in certain places. Performing with just the right amount of swagger for “JFK 2.0” was Justin Klein, complemented well on-stage by Nick Heskett as brother Robert Kennedy. As Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, it is Linda Heiden who brings a next-level performance to the show, infusing the straight-laced character with just the right amount of comedic undertone to make the audience think that even she may not know how insane her character truly is. The only issue that really throws things a little out of whack in this category are the constant in-show references to current pop culture. The references themselves I certainly didn’t mind – I caught in-jokes that related to everything from Battlestar Galactica, Scooby-Doo, True Blood, Dawn of the Dead, Batman, and even Apple and bath salts – but for a story that was supposedly taking place in an alternate version of the 1960s, these modern in-jokes could stand to confuse the audience as an out-of-temporal element. 7/10
E: Effects and Editing – I definitely have to give much credit to the crew of the show in this section – this show went above and beyond what a normal Fringe-type show would do in terms of makeup, sets, and design; for such a short show (both in on-stage run time and production-run time), the feat is nothing less than incredibly impressive. Kudos all around to Shoemaker and his team: assistant director Kayla Hulen, producer/sound designer Zach Rosing, music director Sean Baker, makeup and hair designer Daniel Klingler, stage manager Chris Becker, and set designer Kevin Rose. The ensemble cast all play their roles to the fullest – no one on stage ever suffers a moment of low energy, each taking their moment in the spotlight and working it to their fullest potential – so additional kudos go to the hard-working FB(U)I Agent Day (Chris Day) and the two necromantically-lovely “Zombie Ruffians” (Emily Bohannon and Ashley Chase, with Chase also providing choreographer duties). 9/10
TOTAL SCORE: 7.75/10
If you’re in Indianapolis the week of August 18-26 or within a drivable distance, this is a show definitely worth checking out for zombie fans who want a one-of-a-kind experience not likely to be duplicated any time soon. If you’re not in the Midwest with us this week… well, maybe you’ll get lucky and some entrepreneuring theater folk will put the show up on YouTube after it closes to see if it can go viral.
And now, my friends, you know the Score!