On Stage: Zombies in Office

by Chuck Conconi

The absurdity of zombies is both the highlight and stumbling point of Woolly Mammoth’s latest play.

Sarah Marshall, Jessica Frances Dukes, Tim Getman and Thomas Keegan in 'Zombie: The American' at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. (Photo by Stan Barouh)

Sarah Marshall, Jessica Frances Dukes, Tim Getman and Thomas Keegan in ‘Zombie: The American’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. (Photo by Stan Barouh)

It’s not likely to happen in the upcoming 2016 presidential election, but by 2060, as Robert O’Hara anticipates in his play, “Zombie: The American,” the first gay president will be elected and there will be zombies in the basement of the White House.

American politics is becoming more-and-more a theatre of the absurd and that’s how O’Hara foresees it in this Woolly Mammoth Theatre premiere, complete with an imperial presidency: the president is referred to as “Lord President” and wears a golden crown and a long, red, fur-collared robe as he gives his inaugural speech.

Washington is no longer the capital. The East Coast is under water and Lord President Valentine and the Oval Office have moved to South Dakota, at the foot of Mt. Rushmore. National security is significantly diminished and the country’s security is dependent on peacekeeping forces from the powerful United African Nations.

Cynicism abounds in “Zombie: The American.” The Lord President (Thom Valentine) is dealing with the murder of an African peacekeeper and the decapitation of his vice president. All the while, his first gentleman husband is having sex with the royal butler, a clone. Luigi Sottile, the royal butler, is also the royal guard and the chief of staff.

Valentine suffers with antic angst, not knowing if he can trust his Secretary of Defense General Alexander, portrayed with impeccable pomposity by Thomas Keegan. There is also an upcoming election with the conservative Governor Lloyd (Tim Getman) looking to unseat the Lord President.

Director Howard Shalwitz brings into this mix the incomparable Sarah Marshall as Lady Secretary of State, Jessica Bloom. Any actor must dread sharing the stage with Marshall; she can get laughs and dominate the action by just walking on and off the stage. One of Washington’s respected, veteran actors, she has a rubbery face and projects a stern, deadpan glare. You watch for her even when she is in the background. She demands that her troubled Lord President seek help from the zombies in the basement.

And then, with a dramatic hydraulic lifting of the president’s office, in the set designed by Misha Kachman, the zombie lair in the basement is revealed with three ruling zombies sitting behind a raised desk with the titles: Speaker of Zombies, Zombie Chairwoman, and Zombie Minority Whip (Getman, Jessica Frances Dukes and Keegan in multiple roles).

Can the Lord President be reelected and avoid a military disaster? Does he have to give the zombies too much (a fresh body to devour) on every consultation for their help? The zombie segment, with all the fake blood, is the highlight of this play. Unfortunately, it is also where O’Hara has stumbled in how to conclude his play. He contends, and it’s not a bad idea, that it is the normal people who are really the lock step zombies.

This is only the first production of a new work that will undoubtedly go through useful revisions and find itself. The first act is sharply paced and comical, helped by the colorful costumes designed by Ivania Stack from the widely-patterned suits of the Lord President and his wayward husband, to the Ruritanian military uniforms and the grotesque bloody rags of the zombies. With the upcoming 2016 presidential race promising to be ugly and embarrassing, it may be that O’Hara’s “Zombie: The American,” zombies aside, isn’t all the absurd.

“Zombie: The American” continues through June 21 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St., NW. Tickets are $35-$73 and available at 202-393-3939 or online here

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