Review Fix chats with playwright Melody Bates, who discusses the upcoming production of “R & J & Z,” which is set for a run at the New Ohio Theatre on April 1-18. Breaking down the influence behind the Romeo and Juliet and Zombies performance, Bates, who also plays Juliet, discusses the influences behind her work, as well as the cast, which she feel play a huge role in her message being delivered.
Review Fix: What was the inspiration of for this production?
Melody Bates: R & J & Z starts with Act V of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and keeps going, in verse, as the famous lovers navigate a world in which death isn’t necessarily the end. I got the idea for it late one night on the corner of 63rd and Broadway, on my way back to the subway after a night at the opera. I had just seen Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette at the Met. In that production, Romeo drinks his poison and dies, Juliette wakes up, finds him dead, stabs herself in the heart and collapses…and then they both get back up and stay alive long enough to sing this beautiful music together. On our walk back to the subway, I joked with my husband, “what are they supposed to be, undead?” I actually stopped in my tracks and said “oh my god I have to write a play called Romeo and Juliet and Zombies.” The next day when I re-read Shakespeare’s play I got really excited—the text just lit up in tantalizing ways. Turns out Shakespeare was writing Romeo and Juliet while London’s theatres were all closed because of the plague, so it makes sense that it’s a death- and disease-obsessed play. “By heaven I will tear thee joint by joint/ And strew this hungry churchyard with thy limbs”—that’s Romeo getting ready to head into the tomb in Act V. And then when I discovered who the Searchers of the Town are, things really jumped off—but you have to come see the show to find out about them.
Review Fix: Fast zombies or slow ones? Why?
Bates: I’m an omnivore when it comes to both Shakespeare and zombies. I like to be scared, so if it’s scary and the storytelling is good I’m on board. I get how the fast zombies of 28 Days Later changed the game, but I also think that the essential terror is the same–something about the pursuing monster incapacitates the pursued. Whether the monster is too fast or strong for us, or our own horror overcomes us and we can’t get away, the result is the same. I know there are zombie purists who take a hard line, but I think fast and slow can both be good. I definitely take all kinds of liberties with the zombie idea in my play, so let’s just say I support zombie diversity.
Review Fix: Favorite zombie flick? How did it have an effect on this production?
Bates: Joss Whedon’s “Cabin in the Woods” was a real touchstone for me while developing R & J & Z. That move manages to be really funny, really scary, and grounded in a kind of truthfulness that I really connect to. You can tell Joss really loves the genres he’s exploding. So he can do something new with them–there’s respect there, and great pleasure in the old forms, and he’s such a good writer, writing for great actors. His worldview is also not held back by the kind of casual sexism and racism that devalues some movies in the genre. “Cabin” has been a great reference point for collaborators joining the RJZ team—a way to say, “oh, this is the vibe.” I watched a ton of other zombie films, too. Everything from the 1932 White Zombie to classic Romero and the more recent reboots; Zombieland, World War Z, Pontypool, REC, Resident Evil, and all kinds of obscure stuff–even some crazy German zombie alt-porn…if it was streaming on Netflix, I probably watched it. Even the bad stuff is useful. You never know where you’re going to come across some great effect or killer image. It’s all inspiration.
Review Fix: How do you want this production to affect people?
Bates: I want them to have a really good time. I think some people will come for the Shakespeare and stay for the zombies, and some other people will come for the zombies and stay for the Shakespeare. This play comes from a place of love for both. I hope that our audiences are terrified and tickled and turned on, and also moved by the power of the love story. Are you curious? Do you like a good time? Then this play is for you.
Review Fix: Talk about the cast. What makes them special?
Bates: They’re very sexy and super smart. Talent all day. Seven of our core actors were part of the first production in Maine last summer, and we bonded hard. When we got back home to NYC, we all knew we wanted to resurrect R & J & Z. And the new cast members who have joined us are outstanding. I love actors who are transformative, who don’t just do one thing, who surprise you. We’re lucky to have a bunch of them in our cast—lots of credit to our great director Joan Jubett for assembling such a game, generous, fearless crew.
Review Fix: Who do you think will enjoy this production the most?
Bates: There are definitely lots of Easter eggs for people who love Shakespeare or zombies. But it’s not just for them. I threw this over to our producer J.Stephen Brantley, who also plays Mercutio in R & J & Z, and this is what he says: “You know who should come see it? Classical purists who have no time for all this re-interpretive nonsense. People who hate Shakespeare. People who can’t watch scary movies. People who never see indie theatre. All of these people will have their minds blown.”
Review Fix: What’s next?
Bates: I love this group of people and want to keep working with them. So I expect we’ll make some more great stuff together. I have a couple of other writing projects percolating, and I’ll be acting in some cool productions later this year, including a production of Merry Wives of Windsor at Opera House Arts in Maine, where R & J & Z premiered. But really right now I’m focused on making the NYC premiere of R & J & Z as kick-ass as it can be. After we get through the run, who knows! One of my brothers is a video game designer and he’s talked about making an RPG based on the show. A couple of friends who work in university drama departments have approached me about producing it…I think it’s a great script and I hope it will have a future life.
Review Fix: Bottom line, why should someone check this out?
Bates: Bloody, sexy, funny, scary, and totally from the heart. Come spend the apocalypse in Verona: we’ll show you a good time.