I love Halloween. I love the haunted houses, I love the costumes, I love the candy overload. But most of all, I love that Halloween is a holiday that celebrates twisted and unabashed imagination. It’s therefore very appropriate in more ways than one that the world premiere of Steadman & Walker, Zombie LLC, written by local talent Jared Greathouse and produced by The Hive Theatre Company, should open so close to Halloween. Although it’s not always successful in communicating its many and complicated messages, Steadman & Walker is unorthodox, fresh, and creative, and I am always glad to see new work that wants to try something different.
The play follows three young professionals on their first day at the successful life insurance company Steadman & Walker, LLC, where they soon discover that climbing the rungs of the corporate ladder may come at the cost of their morals. And their braaaaaaaaaaaains.
It’s a great concept. Just the idea of a play about zombies running a life insurance agency makes me giggle. Plus, the top of the show is great. Seriously. Some gritty Tom Waits sets the mood as clean cut Bob (played by Spencer Belnap) donates a dollar to an alcoholic Santa (played by Robert Easton) and settles in to read his newspaper, oblivious to the pack of zombies in business casual that chase a bloody coworker through the lobby. But despite the plot’s potential for comedy, the play lost a lot with the dialogue, which was serious, occasionally repetitive, and at times alienating in its verbose philosophizing. It is clear that Greathouse has many missions for the metaphor of his show, but at times the work seemed to take itself so seriously that the message was lost. I’m a firm believer in humor as a means of beguiling viewers into new points of view, and Steadman & Walker was so rife with opportunities for smart character comedy that I wished they had taken greater advantage, although it certainly had its shining moments. The script just seemed to need a thorough punch-up to sharpen up some long stretches of monologues and the several scenes that begged for action.
For instance, the entire first act takes place in an elevator where our human protagonist has his first awkward introduction to his new coworkers: a bombastic mysogynist zombie from middle management (played by Sam C. McGinnis); the zombie janitor, Larry, who is in fact the company founder’s son (Jared Greathouse); aforementioned alcoholic zombie Santa who, it turns out, used to be a top employee before being tossed out to fend for himself in the tough economy; and the slutty zombie secretary, Lisa (hilariously portrayed by Elise C. Hanson). While this elevator idea at first serves for some solid situational comedy, it also means the characters are trapped without dynamic movement for the entire first act. The majority of dialogue bounces between only two characters while the rest are left underutilized in the background. This was especially true for Lisa, who was entirely mute and referred to only as the butt of jokes, yet stole the scene with Elise Hanson’s expert expressions and comedic timing.
Act II was perhaps the weakest act, with some ill-fitting chemistry between Tiffany A. Greathouse’s Ashley, David J. Bohnet’s James, and JayC Stoddard’s Coach, however Act III saw really enjoyable performances by JC Carter and Jeffrey Owen, who worked very well together as the head jefes, Walker and Steadman, respectively.
As Greathouse states in his director’s/playwright’s note, this show was a collaborative work meant to be the union of various artistic voices. Each act had a different director (Jared Greathouse, Tiffany A. Greathouse, and Elise C. Hanson shared the role) and often an entirely new cast of characters. Overall, this approach is refreshing and interesting, but at times the influx and outflux of characters made for a disjointed experience. Still, I hope they’ll continue to develop and fine-tune the collaborative style.
Costumes (by Jared, Tiffany, and Kelcey Greathouse) and makeup (by JC Carter, Shanna McChesney, Kalika Rose, Sidney Bre Davis, and Kelly Donahue) were of top notch Halloween creepiness quality, complete with an Evil Dead-style bloodbath and an edible human arm. Michael D. Austin’s set was minimalistic but effective and streamlined — perfectly fitted to the Sugar Space.
Steadman & Walker, Zombie LLC has great potential. I just don’t think it’s there quite yet. I hope that Greathouse and The Hive will take some extra time with it to zero in on their message and the best way to communicate it with humor and sincerity.
If you’re in the mood for some surprisingly eloquent zombies this Halloween, stagger on down to the Sugar Space to join The Hive in celebrating new local work and collaborative theatre.
Steadman & Walker, Zombie LLC, presented by The Hive Theatre Company, is playing October 18 and 19, 8:00 PM at Sugar Space (616 E. Wilmington Ave, Salt Lake City). Tickets are $12, available at thesugarspace.com. Run time: 90 min, no intermission.