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by Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom
Theatre Jacksonville’s Educational Outreach Coordinator Juan Unzueta established the first Jr. Mainstage production four years ago, and it has now become an annual event. It provides an opportunity for several teenage performers to appear on the mainstage of TJ, and to use the set of the currently playing mainstage production, which for this year is the zany comedy, “Twentieth Century” which runs through May 5.
In the past, Director Unzueta has selected a play especially written for teenagers who can produce them in school since they usually run about 45 minutes which fits nicely into an hour of class time. Unzueta has also chosen plays based on the mainstage set, but this year was truly a challenge because “Twentieth Century” takes place entirely on a train, and we’re not aware of any “train plays” for teenage actors. Here, improvisation is the name of the game, and “Just Add Zombies” uses the set as if it were the back of a stage where props are kept, and it was loaded up with miscellaneous items.
The plot of “Just Add Zombies” concerns a high school group rehearsing “Romeo and Juliet.” The only scene we see from the Shakespeare classic is the death scene between Romeo (played by Aaron Zeller) and Juliet (Summer Cheynne Bradley). The attention of the cast is diverted from rehearsal when they spot a homeless woman (Meredith Key) dressed in an old raincoat, lying across seats in the front row and looking very dead. They carry her on stage and discover she is a zombie. How do they know this? Zombies have grey faces and sunken eyes and grunt or growl instead of talking. Romeo and Juliet are pretty much forgotten. Zombies, also known as the living dead, are always trying to increase their numbers and do so by simply biting a normal person and just like that you have another zombie. The entire troupe hustles the zombie off the stage and by now there is another as Sydney (Alyssa Moody) has joined the ranks of the living dead. In a short time, eleven of the thirteen in the cast reappear through the rear doors. There must have been a whole lot of biting going on – ALL ARE NOW ZOMBIES!!! The only normal people left are Mitchy and Cora, our Romeo and Juliet.
Now Zombies don’t move very fast, but they are persistent as they drag their feet along while constantly hunting for new prey. If you are familiar with the cable AMC channel and have watched the popular series “The Living Dead” you would know that the only way to stop a Zombie is to shoot it in the head. This is, of course, not possible in high school where guns are not allowed. Romeo uses an oversized balloon-like bat to slow down and subdue the raging zombies. Is there a happy ending? We won’t tell.
Two of the characters were very interesting. The Stage Manager (Emily Poehlman) has the funniest line in the show when she says,” Stage managers are good at creating awkward moments and not responding at all.” Chad (Ryan Carter) thinks he is God’s gift to the ladies and is constantly making passes at any and every female he gets close to, but he uses the same clichéd pitch trying to get a kiss, and is rejected every time.
Others in this lively cast were Cierra London, Jennifer Carter, Riley Shea, Emily Simmons, Kristen Shaw, Michael Fisher, Matthew Ubl and Emily Poehlman.
The schools represented in the cast included Mandarin High School, Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, Oakleaf High School and Stanton College Prep. All the performers did a terrific job in the acting department and really seemed to enjoy playing Zombies.
“Just Add Zombies” was written by Jonathan Dorf, a Los Angeles based playwright who has a number of scripts available for teenage productions. A couple of plays he has available have intriguing titles such as “Thank You for Flushing my Head in the Toilet and Other Rarely Used Expressions” and “Pepperoni Apocalypse.”
Zombies are in with the younger crowd. Vampires are out, being considered too upper class and highbrow, while Zombies are, well, shall we say down to earth? There is a lot of zombification of existing stories going on; a sort of a remixing of existing texts. For example there is a “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” as well as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Zombies, now available.
A lot of effort went into this two- performance show, with very interesting makeup and costumes, as well as some very inspired performances! The audience had a lot of fun and so did the actors. Here’s hoping we’ll see more of them onstage at a later date.