Sunday, October 31, 2010

Night of the Living Dead: Live at the Mayfair

Friday night I finally got out to see the Mayfair Theatre's production of Night of the Living Dead: Live. I missed it the first time they staged this show, back in March, and I really had wanted to catch it. So, while I was working at the Mayfair all of last week (the Writers Festival happens there)  I mentioned to Mike Dubue, the theatre's manager and the composer and conductor of this show, that I wanted to go, and he gave me a ticket. So, after about a week spent in the Mayfair behind the scenes, I found myself back there, only this time as an audience member, ensconced in the second row of a sold out theatre with some friends, a plastic cup of beer, and some popcorn. Ahhhh.

The Mayfair's website calls it "Ottawa's home of stuff you won't see anywhere else," and this show pretty much proves it (as George Romero himself commented in a taped introduction.) What Mike Dubue's done with this show is like nothing I've heard of before. It's a little like the inverse of going to see the "Met in HD" opera shows at the big cinemas, actually. He's written an original score (for a combination of strings, guitar, & percussion, with some atmospheric electronics) and done the sound design for a complete live soundscape of the film. Actors read the lines in sync with the screen, and a foley artist supplies all the sound effects (with the exception of big sounds like doors slamming or explosions, which are done with the percussion section.) The whole front of the theatre was jammed with performers: the instruments off at stage left being conducted by Mike, who was also playing a number of the percussion instruments, the foley artist and what I assume was an effects board toward the middle, and a line of actors with their scripts illuminated by little pen lights sitting in the front row of seats to the right.

I think that most of the time I was aware that there were live musicians and actors, even though it was easy to forget and just watch the movie. But it was far too fascinating watching the foley artist and the instrumentalists to only pay attention to the screen. (Where, incidentally, they were rolling a 35mm print of the movie, not a digital remaster. I actually saw that reel, up in the projection booth, earlier this week when I took an author up there to do a pre-reading interview. Cool.)

The live music had an interesting effect on the movie - it suddenly seemed a bit more like an art film. Now, I'm pretty sure that even Romero would be the first to say that he was just trying to make a movie, when he and his friends shot this film, although there are plenty of things that could be said about Romero's social commentary through his "Dead" films. But once you take the sound away from the original print, treating it, in a way, like a silent film, and add Mike's original score, you somehow are more likely to see the ways in which the film is artistic.

The graveyard scene, where Barbara runs from the first zombies, came across as almost ethereal, dream-state-like, because while Jennilee Murray, who played all the women in the show, spoke Barbara's dialogue, she didn't make any sounds as Barbara ran, and stumbled, and fell, and picked herself back up, and fought off the zombie, and tried to hide in the car, and drove off only to hit a tree, and lost her shoes, and finally ended up pelting barefoot along the road. It was all eerily silent, with just the musicians to underscore it.

Somehow it also lets you notice some of the subversive (for the time) stuff that's going on with the character of Ben. I saw an interview once with George Romero in which he said that casting a black man in the part had actually been a complete fluke: they'd written the part for just anyone, and then cast the actor they liked without thinking about it. So you wind up with a black man ordering the white men around, taking charge, being the leader, and hitting a hysterical white woman - none of which was written specifically to address the race issues of the time. But it does, simply by treating the character as an equal. The overtones of lynch mob in the final sequence also come out not because they were written in exactly, but because the audience reads them in.

Mike's score was made up largely of slow pulses of sound from the strings, with some plucked highlights, but definitely not using the high, sharp cues of most horror films of the time: it was ominous and slow most of the time, with a rumbling undercurrent of white noise as though there were a storm or a subway rolling in the distance. It worked for me.

Sure, the voices didn't always sync up perfectly, and at least once there was a glitch (I assume) that meant a section of the film that was supposed to have its original sound didn't. (The actors ad-libbed a couple of references to it later that made the audience burst out laughing.) And one of my friends took exception to Ian Keteku as Ben (said his voice was too high for the part: I thought he sounded fine, and was particularly good at syncing with the film. Jennilee Murray played all the women, and occasionally had to have conversations with herself: she managed to sound different enough that it worked. Through the last bit of the movie, too, her screaming abilities were definitely put to the test. And it was fun that the radio announcer was played by, um, a radio announcer: Alan Neal, from CBC's All In A Day.

And most of all it was entertaining. I enjoyed Mike's scoring, I got to watch him direct with one eye on the screen, I got to watch the foley artist bashing about with chunks of wood and hammers and drawers full of silverware, and I got to watch the actors having fun (and I think ad libbing in spots.) It was entirely satisfying: glad I finally got a chance to see it. If they do another production of it, I highly recommend checking it out.

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