By Wesley James
It's about time zombie plays dug a little bit deeper than blood, guts, and combat, and Random Act's production of Ladies Night of the Living Dead by Bryan Renaud at the Chicago Fringe Festival is refreshing because it's more about the ladies than anything else. This is vital because we need to care about (or at least understand) our protagonists before all hell breaks loose. Without rich character building, there's simply no opportunity for tension.
Ladies Night follows a mixed-bag bachelorette party as their night finally winds down. The play starts fast and picks up - the eclectic but familiar group of women set the background of their relationships to the bachelorette via rapid, natural banter. As the drinks flow and old dramas get aired, we find ourselves fully engaged in a series of Mean Girls-esque escalations, with some of the more level-headed cast simply trying to save the night.
This portion of the play hits reservedly on some really interesting topics: the confusion that can surround bisexuality, the nature of "winning" an amicable break up, and the characteristics and communal judgments of a mean friend versus an annoying one. These are the highlights of the play, particularly because they're handled with appropriate restraint, just brought up enough to leave us thinking.
Of course, in the midst of these explorations, the dead start walking which, refreshingly, matters to us because of how well we know the victims. This section is played out with some very creative stage effects and fun combat - the fight choreography was clearly a labor of love. I find it exciting that the title warns us of the zombies because they arrive so late; their oncoming presence hangs over our perceptions and makes the otherwise normal, very human interactions remarkably tense.
Ladies Night of the Living Dead is bold with much of what it's doing: the characters aren't afraid to say exactly what they're thinking, and there are some huge and extremely memorable deaths, reveals, and shenanigans. The best parts, though, are where the play contrasts itself with restraint, giving us deeper meaning to our zombie mayhem. Ladies Night is proof a strong, fun show can still leave us thinking.
Ladies Night of the Living Dead runs at The Chicago Fringe Festival through September 13th before returning at The Pendulum Space on October 9th. More information: www.randomactschicago.com.