July 10th, 2009 5:33 pm | by JOHN MINERVINI News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

Reviewed: Maelstrom: the Zombie Opera

Maelstrom: The Zombie Opera

Above, the ravenous undead from Maelstrom, the Zombie Opera. Clever use of media and an apocalyptic classical score lend this low-budget production the aroma of big-screen medical dystopias like Resident Evil and Mission Impossible II.

Among classic operas, there is a proud tradition of using the supernatural as a way to explore the workings of the human spirit in extremis. In Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, for example, a young man who has traveled through Hades to rescue his deceased bride must watch as she vanishes before his very eyes. In Mozart's Idomeneo, a king must sacrifice his son to the god Neptune or risk the wrath of an enormous sea serpent. It's a winning combination; together, paranormal content and evocative music allow the audience to experience the spectrum of human emotion in a way that is somehow more real, more visceral, more intense than real life.

So imagine this. A scientist sings an aria about lost love as a parcel of zombies—his own creations—chomp the flesh from his bones. A young woman offers an eerie lullaby to her best friend—who has been infected with a ghastly virus and will shortly become a flesh-hungry monster—before she shoots her in the head. The same woman chants atonally about the end of the world, knowing that soon she will have to bludgeon to death the animated corpse of her former fiancé.

monteverdiMonteverdi would approve.

The aforementioned musical plot twists and others are currently on offer at Maelstrom: the Zombie Opera, a co-production of PSU's Theater Arts Student Organization (TASO) and Student Opera at PSU (SOAP). Written by Reed Reimer and Ben Larson, Maelstrom is a delicious 90 minutes of high-concept pandemonium, a show that benefits hugely from not taking itself too seriously. I'd be lying if I said that the production value wasn't perilously low. The dialogue, too, is clearly a college effort. But one could make a convincing argument that the best way to bring zombies to audiences is just so: no budget, shitty script, great jokes, toe-curling gore. Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead seems to prove as much.

THE PLOT: Anna has an unusual virus, but treating it with conventional medications could threaten the life of her unborn child. So this headstrong hipster and her pot-smoking partner Jeremy opt for an iffy third option. Their friends Bryan and Claire, employees at the Raven Institute hospital and research lab, have offered to engineer an antivirus using blood drawn from Anna's fetus. The opera begins when the young couple arrive at Raven for a routine checkup.

But wait, something strange is going on. The cure, it seems, is worse than the disease! Scientists, security guards and patients are turning up all over the place, covered in campy stage makeup, and they're hungry for human flesh! As you might expect, there's a world-class shit-storm brewing—the zombies have escaped from the compound, the FBI has been notified, etc. etc.—and it's all these hipsters can manage just to stay alive. And sing, of course. Will Anna escape? Will she be able to save her baby?

The one aspect of this opera that wasn't strictly on-the-cheap was the music. Honestly, I was impressed with the score, which took cues from sources as diverse as Schoenberg and Danny Elfman, while nevertheless creating a unified, eerily atmospheric sonic landscape. Especially effective were stretches of incidental music near the opening, which employed modal pizzicato as a way to create suspense, and a beautiful duet that combined the keening “I'm alone” and “The world is not for lovers” themes. The singing, while it wasn't tip-top, was capable, especially from Anna Viemeister and Bryan Coover.

All in all, Maelstrom is a lot of fun. It's true: sometimes it's difficult to tell whether the discord among the violins is written into the score or merely poor playing. And it would be impossible—probably even for the writers themselves—to determine how much of the ungainly dialogue is tongue-in-cheek, and how much is just plain ham-handed. But doggone it, it's worth seeing a woman's intestines devoured out of her abdominal cavity right there on the stage in front of you. As a point of interest, fragments of her intestines and her gooey red innards remain on the stage until the curtain comes down.
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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