George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead turns 50 on Oct. 1. This Thursday, the Linfield College drama team raises the curtain on Lori Allen Ohm’s stage version of the 98-minute black-and-white horror flick shot on a shoestring outside Pittsburgh in 1968. While it’s easy to make too much of it, Night of the Living Dead was, as one writer observed in Cineaste a few years ago, “Patient Zero” in a virtual epidemic of zombies in popular culture in the ensuing decades. As much as the genre obviously panders to audiences that, to paraphrase torture-porn king Eli Roth, “want to see people gettin’ messed up — bad,” it’s undeniable that the films occasionally offer flashes of insight into American life.
Therein lies the appeal of Night of the Living Dead to Linfield’s play selection committee. Plays at the McMinnville college traditionally grapple with a campus-wide PLACE theme. PLACE stands for Program for Liberal Arts and Civic Engagement. Piloted in the fall of 2012, PLACE highlights a theme or issue selected by a curriculum committee and voted on by faculty that is intended to serve as a sort of academic muse. Faculty are encouraged to incorporate it into studies and class discussions. This year, it’s political and social revolution.
Since the inception of PLACE, the theater department has tried to have at least one show that ties into the theme, said Brenda DeVore Marshall, a professor who chairs the Department of Theatre and Communications Arts. “It’s a way for us to contribute to that ongoing college dialogue through the arts,” she said.
The most striking recent example I recall was a 2015 production of The Tempest. The PLACE theme was Air, Water, Earth and Fire: The ancient elements on a changing planet. In the production directed by Professor Janet Gupton and designed by Professor Ty Marshall (who retired last year after 31 years), Prospero used his magic to harness the elements for himself and daughter Miranda, leaving Caliban and Ariel to fend for themselves on an island strewn with garbage.
The theater’s 2018-19 season (the 99th at Linfield College) is headlined Monsters and the Monstrous. After a single-weekend run of Night of the Living Dead, Marshall Theatre will dish up two weekends of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel. In the spring, we’ll see Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters, and the season closes with the alarmingly appropriate choice of Cabaret, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb.
Night of the Living Dead is directed by Melory Mirashrafi, a Hillsboro theater arts major in her senior year at Linfield. I was treated to a peek at the set last week, a monochrome ramshackle of an isolated farmhouse (to capture the look of Romero’s use of black-and-white) where seven people find themselves besieged by zombies. Visiting Professor Derek Lane handled the scenic and lighting design, and Gupton is mentoring Mirashrafi. Part of the production includes video, which was shot and edited by sophomores Alexandria Hunter and Hannah Curry.
Arts journalists — or maybe I should single out those who specialize in horror films — are prone to heap more praise on the film than it probably deserves. We are talking, after all, about the year that Stanley Kubrick unveiled 2001: A Space Odyssey. That said, Romero’s film is memorably unsettling. What I most recall, having seen it only once on home video decades ago: The opening scene in a cemetery (where we see an American flag fluttering next to the tombstones of, presumably, soldiers who died in Vietnam) and the casting of a black man in the lead role. Without spoiling it, I will say that the latter component makes the play’s ending as disturbing as it was on screen. They’re setting it in the 1960s, but we’ll watch it in the era of Black Lives Matter. It’ll be interesting to see how it is staged.
Even if we agree with film critic Stuart Klawans, who declares in an essay for the Criterion Collection’s 2018 release of Night of the Living Dead “that Romero’s work deserves better than to be used as a diagnostic tool for generalized disorders of the body politic,” we must recognize that zombies traditionally have been seen as an allegory for social ills. The movie emerged during the autumn of a year that had been horrifying in its own ways — a mounting death toll in Vietnam, assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Chicago Democratic National Convention — and later sequels and remakes would parody consumer culture, militarism and our insatiable appetite for getting everything on video. Kudos to Linfield for carrying on the tradition of the horror genre as a politically conscious art form. “Our production,” the program notes state, “links the monstrous to racial oppression in the U.S. and asks what has and hasn’t changed since the Civil Rights Movement.”
Thursday’s opening night show will be followed by a panel discussion starting at 9 p.m. Panelists include Linfield President Miles Davis; Jeff Peterson, an associate professor of sociology who teaches a course called “Impact of the Zombie Apocalypse on the Pacific Northwest” (the Humanities are so specialized these days); Jamie Friedman, an assistant professor of English; Nick Buccola, who teaches political science; the director; and actor Antoine Johnson, who plays Ben — the part played by Duane Jones in the film. Lindsey Mantoan, an assistant professor of theater arts and resident dramaturg, will moderate.
Tickets are $5 and selling fast, so if you want to see it, make arrangements sooner rather than later.
IF YOU’VE NEVER HEARD the Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland, here’s your chance: The choir is coming to Yamhill County. The group will perform from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Friday in the grand ballroom of the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. It will be joined by Newberg High School’s Vocal Point and Intertwine: McMinnville Women’s Ensemble. The group, celebrating 50 years, is offering a program of favorites, including works by Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Moses Hogan, Randall Thompson, Jake Runestad and more. Tickets are $15 for adults, free for youth under 18, and $5 Arts for All Tickets (show EBT/Oregon Trail Card to qualify) are available at the door. Reservations may be made here.
TWO MORE NOTES FROM THE THEATER WORLD: Back in downtown McMinnville, Gallery Players of Oregon continues its run of Footloose on the main stage, with shows Friday through Saturday nights and a Sunday matinee. There’s also an intriguing opportunity in Salem starting next week: The Verona Studio, a black box theater in the Reed Opera House mall downtown, will stage Florian Zeller’s critically acclaimed play The Father. Directed by Patricia Wylie, Yamhill County’s Jennifer Dolphin and Randall Tosh of Salem star in a story about a man with dementia and the daughter who cares for him. The Father received the 2014 Moliere Award, which is bestowed on France’s best play. Shows are at 8 p.m. Sept. 20-22, 28 and Oct. 5; 2 p.m. Sept. 29 and Oct. 6. You can get your tickets here.
A COUPLE OF OTHER OPTIONS IN SALEM are coming next week, but unfortunately, they’re scheduled for literally the same time on the same day. At the Salem Public Library, Cameron La Follette, executive director of the Oregon Coast Alliance, will give a free talk about the subject of Oregon Historical Quarterly’s summer issue: The Santo Cristo de Burgos, a Manila galleon that wrecked off the coast of Oregon in the late 17th century and came to be known as the Beeswax Ship because of its cargo. It’s a chance to hear the story of both the shipwreck and how historians and archaeologists fleshed out the details of that final, tragic voyage. Showtime is 7 p.m. Sept. 26 at the library, 585 Liberty Street S.E.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away, the Elsinore Theatre screens MGM’s Ziegfeld Follies, part of the theater’s Wednesday Film Series. The 1945 film, whose directors include Vincente Minnelli, features plenty of song and dance intended to capture the flavor of the Ziegfeld Follies Broadway shows. Lots of big names here: Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Lena Horne, William Powell, Red Skelton and Esther Williams. Doors open at 6:15 p.m. Sept. 26, and the show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $6.
ARTS JOURNAL: Bear with me for a final word on zombies. I’ve seen most of the Romero films and for a few years was a faithful follower of AMC’s The Walking Dead before I simply couldn’t take it anymore. But I want to put in a word for Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie, a terrific horror film from 1943 that is, unfortunately, burdened with an undeserved campy title that producer Lewton was embarrassed by. Frances Dee stars as a nurse charged with caring for a West Indies plantation manager’s wife who is (perhaps) suffering from catatonia. The black-and-white film’s centerpiece, a midnight walk through bamboo and brush to a voodoo ceremony, is sheer visual poetry. Hunt it down if you can.