Night of the lifeless dead

“The scene can best be described as mayhem,” announced a graying man into a microphone last Friday night. A stage of wet grass beneath his feet, an uplit Gothic edifice and a curtain of night sky behind him, he continued his news report. “The killers are eating the flesh of the people they’ve murdered.”

If only. Theater-Hikes’ open-air production of “Night of the Living Dead,” which ran last weekend in Hyde Park on a patch of land on the southwest corner of 58th Street and Woodlawn Avenue, could have used a little more chaos and a lot more gore. And though both would have been welcomed in their own right–it is, after all, almost Halloween–the distraction they’d have provided from the play’s wooden acting also would have been much appreciated.

A crowd of about 40 people, seemingly comprised mostly of middle-schoolers and their parents, watched the hour-and-a-half-long performance, squatting on blankets or shifting feet back and forth on a stone pathway that faced the stage. While actors fought their way through a script that closely followed the 1968 cult film from which it was adapted, zombies circled them and their audience, rarely coming close enough to incite fright. One middle-aged zombie did have a disgusting purple boil attached to his neck, and a child actor bundled all in white unnerved at least this onlooker with her blank scare and stilted gait.

The setting, though, left nothing wanting. Stripped of its leaves, its long drooping branches poised to strike, a gloomy tree dwarfed the actors; in the near distance, the imposing tower of Rockefeller Chapel loomed. A single, ornate lamppost occupied center stage, providing most of the set’s only, dim lighting (a few Theatre-Hikers were on flashlight duty, moving about during the performance to cast spotlights on the faces of the actors). Regrettable only was the noise–and complete lack of acoustics–that came part and parcel with the prime location: tour buses idled on Woodlawn, passersby chatted loudly, and, for one entire, unfortunate minute, a low-flying helicopter puttered its way across the sky. (At least the audience didn’t need sound to appreciate the scientist’s stick-on ’stache that just wouldn’t stay stuck.)

But hunger pangs for a couple of fake limbs, a little raw flesh, and at least one bottle of ketchup lingered, and were felt all the more poignantly when one character yelled at another, “Don’t you understand what’s going on out there? This ain’t no Sunday School picnic!” No, it certainly wasn’t–if it was, there would have been something to snack on.