Theatre of the living - Ka Leo O Hawaii: Features

Theatre of the living

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Posted: Friday, November 16, 2012 5:00 am

This weekend is your last chance to catch Kennedy Theatre’s take on one of Russian literature’s greatest plays with an apocalyptic twist.

Uncle Vanya and Zombies” presents Anton Chekhov’s classic play in the context of a zombie-based cataclysm in Honolulu, a production within a production that puts a new spin on the performance with the help of an unlikely dramatic pairing. 

The play focuses on the conflict within the family of Professor Serebryakov, a formerly respected and well-paid academic who fell into obscurity after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Voynitsky (or Uncle Vanya), his former brother-in-law who manages his country estate and resents the opportunities that the professor has had in life

The adaptations that included flesh-eating monsters were made by University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa theatre professor Markus Wessendorf.

Wessendorf’s adaptation is performed as part of the imaginary reality-television series “Theatre Masterpieces and Zombies,” a program meant to help raise money for the actors, who are survivors of a nuclear accident on O‘ahu that spawned a zombie invasion

The “contestants” performing the play must stay in character and remember their lines while being confronted by zombies, introduced by the show’s hosts at random intervals. 


Karissa Murrell, a Masters of Fine Arts candidate who plays Sonya, Vanya’s niece, said that combining the story of a conflict-ridden family with a zombie motif, while unusual at first glance, actually makes sense.

“It’s all [about] interpersonal problems, a dysfunctional family,” Murrell said. “They’re living, but they just don’t do anything or go anywhere.”

Citing multiple violent scenes between family members in Chekov’s original work, Murrell stressed that many of the attributes of a zombie apocalypse –conflict, disagreement, panic and misunderstanding – were already present in the play, albeit in more subtle forms. In that respect, she said, the introduction of zombies into the plot was a natural move.

“It’s a hopeless situation. There is no win,” she noted. “[The characters] have already become ‘zombiefied’ in a way.”

As a result, Murrell explained, there are several moments in the play where conflicts between Chekov’s characters coincide with those between the reality show contestants, who sometimes turn against each other in their desire to win.

“The correlation between those moments is really cool … There’s a lot of overlap,” she said.


Although the play draws upon the original “Vanya” in many aspects, production crew and stage talent devoted significant time to preparing for their six performances. 

Wessendorf, who is also directing the production, spent nearly one year writing the script. In addition, the actors and actresses in the play ¬– many of whom are pursuing graduate degrees in the fine arts – enrolled in a special two-part course this fall to prepare for the performance.

In the first half of the course, the student actors studied the original “Uncle Vanya” text and compared it with Chekov’s other works. Murrell explained that particular emphasis was placed on the playwright’s battle with tuberculosis and how it affected his writings.

“We looked at the plays in order … what did he write, how it changed and how it evolved leading up to ‘Vanya,’” she said.

Meanwhile, the second half of the course examined the development of the modern dramatic zombie, from the mythical living dead laborers of colonial Haiti to the modern flesh-eating monsters of horror movies and video games. 

The students also considered theories regarding the popularization of zombie movies and productions, such as one postulate that describes zombies as a coping mechanism for those affected by the gruesome scenes broadcast during the Vietnam War.

Overall, Murrell said that although the cast and production crew did not work out many details of the production until after rehearsals began, she is proud of the end result, and that she and her fellow dramatists were able to “do it in a way that makes it an intellectual, educational” experience.

“It was a huge experiment,” she said. “I think we were really able to achieve a really good production that encompasses a lot of the themes that Chekov has in his play.”


When: Friday, Nov. 16 and Saturday, Nov. 17; 8 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 18; 2 p.m.

Where: Kennedy Theatre Mainstage

Cost: $24 regular; $22 seniors, military, and UH faculty/staff; $15 UHAA members; $13 students; $5 UHM students with validated ID.

Tickets on sale at or at the Kennedy Theatre Box Office (808-956-7655).


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