The cast of ‘Just Chilling.’ (Photo: Pat Radke)
There’s nothing worse to end a long workweek than a zombie apocalypse, at least according to playwright Pat Radke, whose six-character Just Chilling opened this weekend at The Cornservatory.
The trope of the zombie apocalypse has dug itself profound roots in American popular culture. From long-running television series like AMC’s The Walking Dead to films such as 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead, the frequently invoked plot device has been given treatments dramatic, comedic and everything in between.
Against this backdrop, I admit slight hesitation when hearing of the new work, also directed by Mr. Radke. Described in promotional materials as a “play following six friends trying to have a nice Friday night on the third day of the zombie apocalypse,” the description lept off the screen, screaming, “I’m derivative!”
Yet in a civilization built upon colonial ideas of individualism and spirituality, stories of regular people surviving mysterious forces in order to rebuild a new, and presumably greater society, are stubbornly appealing. And there’s plenty of money to be made in the telling. Several years ago, NBC News estimated that zombie culture is worth over $5 billion to the American economy. The zombies may be somewhat overworked, but we’ll keep seeing them as long as they’re bankable.
Fortunately, Just Chilling contains several original ideas, including subtle but clear allegorical allusions to the chaos engulfing our current national politics via an illiterate, ill-informed Washington zombie of the living variety. Are there more substantial community dangers in pretending everything is business as usual, even as people’s metaphorical and literal faces are being eaten? Do we owe each other unvarnished truth? These are weighty questions, and academic nuance one might not expect from a comedy staged in a theatre space best known for improv. The laudable effort from Mr. Radke to actually say something renders Just Chilling far more interesting than sci-fi trifle.
In the grand tradition of the best psychological horror, a zombie is never seen, nor do bloody figures dragging their decaying carcasses in pursuit of the living appear. Instead, the potential end of days unravels through the conversations and dynamics of its six characters thrown together by crisis as they drink, worry and tear each other apart inside a Gold Coast apartment building.
Thirty-something yuppie couple Rod (Dave Satterwhite) and Lani (Liz Greenwood) reside in the flat where the disparate personalities converge. An entirely separate Pinter-esque play could be made from their toxic relationship, which crackles with resentment, breeched intimacy and smugness. The zombie apocalypse trope does not typically demand this much in the way of character depth, but the audience is better engaged for it.
Rod’s co-worker Jess (Jorge Salas), his Gen Z girlfriend Nina (Madison Hill), and the couple’s elderly front desk attendant Chet (Chuck Merydith) and neighbor, Jordin (Eileen Hertz), join for the boozy, banter-filled effort to stay alive. Collectively, they display a multi-dimensional range of emotion — panicking, picking at one another, searching for ways to create normalcy, and banding together to pool physical and mental resources. They are not merely zombie chum.
The cast displayed opening night jitters, occasionally stumbling over rapid-fire dialogue and exuding external-facing moments of self-awareness. The effect, however, was endearing and forgivable as the audience suspended reality, and the rattled characters and actors became one.
Running 90 minutes with one intermission, Just Chilling engages a pop-cultural juggernaut while adding something new and decidedly human to the apocalypse genre. Well-acted and paced, Nealshow Productions’ latest offering is worth a bite.
Nealshow Productions at the Cornservatory
4210 N Lincoln, Chicago
Through August 24
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob, their cats, Wendy and Lisa and their dog, RuPaul. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.