ST. PETERSBURG — Take a seat at Freefall Theatre's season opener, and the set looks much like you would expect for The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon Moncrieff's tidy flat.
You know differently, of course.
The Importance of Being Earnest with Zombies, an adaptation by Eric Davis, Freefall's artistic director, is going to be anything but tidy. If there were any doubt about that, it's removed in bold-faced type in the program, setting the play "During the London Plague of the Undead of 1895."
Davis' adaptation, which runs through Halloween (plus one more day), is an ambitious send-up of the Oscar Wilde classic, which itself lampooned Victorian superficiality. With this premiere, Davis has joined a playful trend in pushing the boundaries of theater beyond its comfortable confines.
In so doing he has set a high bar, aiming (and very nearly succeeding) at capturing the speech patterns and rhythms of 19th century British society in a way that is indistinguishable from one of the most enduring playwrights in history. That this play adds an unlikely layer from 20th century horror movies ratchets the task to an even greater degree of difficulty.
So it should not be taken as a slight to say that the execution (pardon the pun) of The Importance of Being Earnest with Zombies fell a little short of its intended goal on Saturday's opening night.
The sophisticated patter often raced as if to speed the action, with the result that the audience seemed to be straining to keep up. They laughed — gratefully — when those witty Wildeisms came, and reacted with special appreciation for the touches of horror Davis feathered in from the beginning.
A scene-setting line from Jack/Ernest (Nick Lerew), the protagonist who leads a double life, comes in the first few minutes: "It is only a matter of time before the undead filth make it past the quarantine."
The changes to the script are amusingly subtle and heavy-handed at the same time, often coming in less dramatic moments. Miss Prism, for example, played with poise and appropriate stealth by Jennifer Christa Palmer, is still a proper governess, only now she is also a zombie fighter.
Instead of telling young Cecily (Maya Handa Naff), "Your German grammar is on the table," it's, "Your Necronomicon is on the table."
As in the original, landowner Jack Worthing is not satisfied with his staid country routine, and has invented a brother, "Ernest," for whom he must periodically travel to London to rescue, presumably partying while he is in town. The departure is that Jack is also a "corpse hunter" with an impressive knife on his belt.
This danger is never far from the door. Thanks to Davis, who also designed the set and sound, you can hear the groaning of the undead outside, and it's genuinely creepy.
The adaptation is essentially a long-running gag, but then again, Wilde was accused of the same thing in 1895. Instead of just riffing on the high society that values artifice over authenticity, The Importance of Being Earnest with Zombies aims to challenge theatrical conventions.
It does so with a humor all its own, and no one encapsulates it better than Matthew McGee, who plays the butlers to both Jack and the haughty Mrs. Bracknell (played on two days' notice by Susan Haldeman, Freefall's company manager, who was still reading from a script on opening night). McGee's gravitas in the face of absurd situations put a contemporary spin on Wilde's humor.
Those obviously funny moments, while delightful, occurred too rarely in the first two acts, as the cast tried to chew the triple-decker sandwich Davis has bitten off, an extra plot on top of a full-length play.
Nonetheless, most in the audience stuck around for the third act — which is equal parts Wilde and zombie — where they were richly rewarded. Kudos to zombie choreographer Adam Graham, fight choreographer Blake Braswell, and new technical director James Zervas for his lighting design.
I'll say this about Zombies: It can be tough going for awhile but it's original and clever and actually pretty darn scary by the third act. Whatever else you may think, you're not likely to see a more inventive take on a traditional play for some time. Nor will you forget this one.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.