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Wednesday
Jun192013

Zombie Seinfeld (2013)

They're Coming to Get You, Jerry!

It's a sick hobby, but I love reading the "Comments" sections of entertainment Websites, especially ones that accompany movie reviews. My favorite attack leveled at critics who pan sci-fi/fantasy and comic-book films goes something like this: "Well u obviusly arent familiar w/ the source material so u were never gonna like the movie anyways."

Today, I present living proof that this argument is stupid, and not just for grammatical reasons. Though Zombie Seinfeld is a play--and it's based on a sitcom and not a graphic novel--the principle remains the same: I was never a fan of the TV show, but I absolutely love Gorilla Tango Theatre's parody of it, which finds America's favorite narcissist whining and scheming his way through the zombie apocalypse.

Writer Pete Mandra and director/star Jeremy M. Eden have created a note-perfect "What If?" scenario in which Jerry Seinfeld (Eden) and his friends, George (Justin Hamby), Elaine (Loren Jones), and Kramer (Frank Menolascino) stumble through almost as many social obstacles as hordes of the walking dead. Jerry gets antsy because his scientist girlfriend, Judith (Madalyn Mattsey), has been withholding a vaccine for months; George's plan to become a fake zombie at the office backfires horribly; Elaine can't decide whether Puddy (Brian Schilling) has been infected or is just a gargantuan idiot; and Kramer's construction of a 1950s-style "zomb-shelter" leads to unparalleled depths of paranoia--and an obsession with Leave it to Beaver actor Hugh Beaumont.

This isn't just an hour-long running joke with actors doing impressions. Mandra and Eden weave several well-plotted, hilarious storylines through multiple scenes and locations--complete with scored quick-changes that replicate commercial breaks.* The creators' loving familiarity with Seinfeld lore allows them to put on a show that feels very much like a Jerry Seinfeld/Larry David production--but whose MAD Magazine-style self-awareness gets in several digs at these essentially despicable characters. 

None of this would succeed, of course, without solid players, and the Zombie Seinfeld cast is one talented ensemble. Let's start with Eden, a human Bat Signal for the cosmos's unequal distribution of talent. Not only did he direct this play; not only did he write Holy Bouncing Boobies: A Batman Burlesque (also for GTT); not only did he eerily channel Jeff Goldblum in last year's Once Upon a Rom-Com: The Bill Pullman Story--he also brings Jerry to smug, neurotic life through an impression that's not limited to well-delivered jokes. Just as the real-life Seinfeld was the sun around which all his sitcom's talent orbited, Eden's performance illuminates his fellow amazing cast members and keeps us enthralled by the story. 

Hamby, Jones, and Menolascino also deftly bring out the most recognizable traits of the characters on which their characters are based (watch out for that rabbit hole, kids)--while never sacrificing presence for impersonation. On opening night, during one of "Kramer's" trademark pratfalls, Menolascino knocked into the apartment set's door, which broke from its hinges. The audience saw what happened right away, but it took the cast a minute to figure it out; a few genuinely cracked-up expressions aside, everyone regrouped almost immediately and worked the incident into the story. That's the kind of happy accident that can make live theatre such a phenomenal experience, especially when steered by a team of imaginative pros like the Zombie Seinfeld gang. 

As we move further away from Eden's orbit, the outer rim of performers is a bit cartoonier, but no less remarkable. You'll swear that the "real life" Newman and J. Peterman got roped into taking local theatre jobs, as Patrick Ruetschlin and Jonathon Rooney command the stage with respective gleeful sliminess and an overly confident lack of self-awareness. On the flip-side, Mattsey (another Rom-Com alum) adds a terrific audience-eye-view to the proceedings, acting as the (somewhat) level-headed foil to the self-absorbed shenanigans of her boyfriend and his nut-case buddies.

I faced a potential ethical dilemma when sitting down to watch Zombie Seinfeld: After having been awake for nearly twenty-one hours, would I be able to fairly assess a play based on a show I'd never cared for? I was grumpy, tired, and struggling to catch my thoughts like fireflies in the night. But the moment the show opened with a video of "Jerry" waxing observational about zombies in a comedy club, I knew I was in for some honest-to-God rejuvenating art.

In my not-so-humble opinion, it's been a wretched summer for movies. If, like me, you crave wit, originality, and playfulness in your pop diversions, skip the multiplex and head to Gorilla Tango's Skokie Theatre before Zombie Seinfeld's limited engagement is up. This infestation of dead people may just renew your lust for life.

Catch Zombie Seinfeld at Gorilla Tango's Skokie Theatre (7924 Lincoln Ave. Skokie, IL 60077) on Friday, June 21st and Friday, June 28th at 9pm. For more information, and to order tickets, please visit gorillatango.com.

*In keeping with Gorilla Tango's plucky, innovative spirit, those changes involve zombie extras shambling onto the stage and clumsily rearranging furniture in the dark.

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