Review: ZOMBIES... WITH GUNS Infects Philly Fringe

By: Sep. 08, 2015

Philadelphia theater company Tribe of Fools's inventive ZOMBIES... WITH GUNS mixes humor with tragedy and makes for a great show and even greater societal commentary at this year's Philly Fringe Fest.

The zombie genre is a remarkably deceptive one, as it can often seem all blood and guts and horror, but it also serves as commentary on the world around us. From the origins of the term linked with Haitian slavery and rebellion, to George A. Romero's penchant for using zombies as a metaphor for consumerism, to the post 9/11 zombies that are faster, angrier, and must be destroyed before they destroy us, zombies have always served as a great allegorical device.

One of my favorite television shows in recent memory was the British drama IN THE FLESH. The show took the premise of the zombie story and told another story: what if there was a cure for the zombie epidemic? These former zombies are still the living dead, they just aren't the creatures from the horror films anymore. They don't eat human food, their skin is cold and dead and a deathly rotten color, and they can still only be killed in the traditional kill-a-zombie sense (headshots, beheading, basically anything with the head). While not completely the same as the strictly living, they are not monsters: they can remember who they were before they became a zombie, they have all the regret and pride and joy and sorrow and every other emotion that we identify as human, they have the free will to not be slaves to their own desires. They are thinking, feeling beings even if they spent years eating brains. The show asks how would a society that just spent years fighting zombies and viewing them as monsters adjust? Could the former zombies ever be truly accepted? Would it be better if the former zombies just wore the makeup, went through the motions of being human, and pretended they were never a zombie in order to make everyone else feel more comfortable? Is it better to alienate the world and embrace who you are? The show became a phenomenally effective allegory of LGBTQ identity in a heteronormative society. The show explored what it is to be an outsider and different in a world that begs you to be the same, even if you have to pretend. The impact of that narrative was only strengthened by using the zombie as a placeholder for a larger societal issue.

And that lengthy detour into why I think zombies are great and can be an amazing narrative device brings me to ZOMBIES... WITH GUNS and why it's a show that should be seen and is more important now than ever. Like IN THE FLESH, Tribe of Fools's ZOMBIES... WITH GUNS takes the zombie genre and tells another story, too: what if zombies weren't just feral killing machines, what if they had heart and humor and sorrow? ZOMBIES... WITH GUNS is definitely fun. As the show mixes humor with gravitas, it works to develop its characters into fully fleshed (and maybe partially fleshed as far as flesh-challenged zombies go) individuals, and it has a point and an important one. In these last few years of #blacklivesmatter and the rise of violence, racial tensions, and police brutality, it is easy to see a connection between the zombie/human conflict of Tribe of Fools's ZOMBIES... WITH GUNS and the real world events we see on our news and in our streets. Violence begets more violence, fear begets more fear, and a climate of hatred only strips away our humanity on a fundamental level. In an intermission-less 75 minutes, Tribe of Fools explores these issues effectively and insightfully.

The narrative of the play was a real joy to watch unfold, so I don't want to give away too much. Peter Smith's direction utilizes the entire theater space and keeps the audience engaged and energized. A well placed traffic light signals the action in a clever way, going between green and red, the outline of a man walking to that red hand that orders pedestrians not to walk, until finally it becomes an important prop in a pivotal turning point of the play. Michael Cosenza's fight direction is exciting and well executed. The actors use the space given and do a phenomenal job kicking, jumping, tumbling, falling, and everything else in-between. The actors and the director achieve some really interesting storytelling moments that were only possible because of the limited speech capacity of the zombies (see, this is why zombies as a narrative device are smarter than some people care to admit). ZOMBIES... WITH GUNS has a sense of fluidity, as each actor does a fantastic job and adds their own style to the show, and the actors work off of each other in ways that show a real comfort on a professional level, even as tension and mistrust builds on the character level. Each show also features a different celebrity guest zombie, a performer who appears that night only. The way this guest zombie is used in the show is clever and fun and the guest zombie's ultimate fate generated a well-earned laugh from the audience.

The division of action between the two camps created real stakes and a real conflict that eliminated the over simplification of Us vs. Them. In this time in our history especially, we are conditioned for fear, and everything the audience knows of zombies says that shooting them is the way to go, so it's easy to empathize with the fear and grief driven motivations of the human camp, even as they become less the heroes and more the villains of the play.

ZOMBIES... WITH GUNS isn't a show that's meant to be passively watched. The audience claps, laughs, cheers, and gasps in realization. There's even a warning when you first come into the theater, "the first two rows are a possible splash zone, but it will wash right out!" How could that not be a show worth seeing?

Although, as a lifelong Philly resident I have one point of contention with the play: Pat's or Geno's? Where's Dallesandro's in this debate?

[Luna Theater, 620 S 8th St] September 4-12, 2015 tickets

Photo Credit: Tribe of Fools on Facebook

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