Brother and sister Barbra and Johnny are driving to put flowers on their father’s grave at a cemetery apparently in the middle of nowhere, per their mother’s request. We hear a few squeals from the radio. The announcer’s voice blames the brief radio station outage on “those damn liberals.” Our suspicions that this is no ordinary version of Night Of The Living Dead are confirmed. The fact that the two characters are puppets is probably somewhat of a giveaway, too, but this dispels any lingering doubts.
On Thursday, October 29, Milwaukee’s only “zombiteers,” Angry Young Men, Ltd., will bring their unique take on the horror classic to the Oriental Theatre with Night Of The Living Dead: The Puppet Show. This year’s cast of 12 brings back seasoned members along with a few relative newbies, including David Kaye and Liz Getschow. But…zombie puppets?
“I would describe the play as the original movie very quickly remade by Frank Oz when he was drunk, with a giant wink,” Kaye says. “The whole thing is a loving homage.” (Kaye plays Chill Wills, newscaster on a televised emergency broadcast where a “live” news report happens to be an interview with members of an “armed militia of local hillbillies who’ve been deputized due to troop shortages stateside.”)
Additional updates have been added, including characters announcing “no bars” when trying to use their cell phones, Ben’s challenging shout of “Who wants some?” after de-braining a zombie, a nod to the debate over immigration, and a proclamation to the audience that “white folks are crazy” after Barbra dissolves into hysterics. “We change up some of the jokes and references in rehearsal, and add new bits or physical gags,” says co-director Billy Ray Olsen.
“There are a lot of remakes of NOTLD, but what makes ours special, aside from puppets, is its genuine love of the original film and the zombie genre as a whole,” says Liz Ahlstrom, who plays Helen Cooper, one of the survivors of the apparent apocalyptic zombie outbreak. “Our adaptation gets to the heart of the story while providing plenty of inside jokes to members of the zombie fandom.”
Darrin Alston, who plays Ben, the seemingly most level-headed of the survivors, says the audience can expect “a hilarious show. It’s more or less a survivor horror funhouse. Zany antics with George Romero lore. It’s a good time. If you love NOTLD, you’ll enjoy it. If you like puppets, you’ll enjoy it.”
But wait: Wasn’t last year touted as the very last chance to see the show? What gives? “Basically, what it boils down to, is that puppets lie,” says Josh Perkins, who is the body behind director puppet Murray Gauntman. “You can’t believe much that comes out of Murray’s mouth.”
“Puppets allow you to get away with saying anything, being larger-than-life. They really are a bridge between live theatre, which is what I’m trying to get more people interested in, and the film,” Olsen says. “You have to make the connections yourself in live theatre. You don’t have everything spelled out for you. There’s a sense that this is a low-budget production, the idea that you can see the manipulation. I don’t want it to get too polished, because I think we’d lose some of the heart. There’s a sloppy sort of charm we’ve got.”
“We’ve said, since the beginning,” says Perkins, “that if something goes wrong, if a prop or puppet falls apart, whoever notices it yells out “mah-na mah-na,” a la the Muppets’ “Mah-Na Mah-Na” song, and the rest of us will respond immediately with “doo doo doo doo,” and we’ll all know something is wrong.”
Thursday’s show will be hosted by magical comedian Brent Allan, and opened by a crew of puppets, including a brand new addition to the crew, the “Thing from Another World.” The show, which starts at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 7), is rated PG (for “Puppet Gore,” which amounts mainly to streams of red cloth spewing out of puppets’ body parts at appropriate times), but is suitable for all ages. Tickets are $10.