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The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

‘The Zombie Life’ explores life and death

Witty, thrilling and uncomfortable, Professor Chris Gavaler crafts a profound message about the value of living
Professor Chris Gavaler presented what he described as the world’s most unorthodox self-help seminar, “The Zombie Life,” on April 6. Photo provided by Chris Gaveler

A trio of zombies walk– not stumble– into the Stackhouse Theater.

Their faces are slack as they carry themselves with an eerie sense of zen. They are strangely articulate for zombies, speaking in full sentences. Not a groan or moan in sight.

One turns to the audience and says: “We’ve all gotta die sometime. Why not tonight?”

“The Zombie Life,” a play written by Washington and Lee’s very own Associate Professor of English Chris Gavaler, was performed in Stackhouse Theater on April 6.

“The Zombie Life” follows a therapist, Dr. Ken, as he holds a seminar trying to convince the audience he can cure all the pain and suffering in their life through zombification.

He uses a trio of trained zombies to talk about how zombification improved lives or–more accurately– deaths.

When Dr. Ken gives the zombies a series of objects, the zombies personify the people who once owned the objects to talk about how miserable their lives were and how much better it is now that they are dead.

As the seminar goes on, things start to go wrong for Dr. Ken when a brand new zombie convert, Shalandis, starts to hold onto her past life instead of letting it all go.

“It’s an anti-suicide message presented as a horrifyingly flawed pro-suicide message,” Gavaler said.

Witty and tragic, the play fully immersed the audience by bringing them directly into the story.

Before the play began, Dr. Ken, played by Ed Whitacre, passed out questionnaires to the audience to fill out as if they were in an actual seminar.

The forms asked questions such as, “Zombies are not petty, jealous, or hypocritical. List the character flaws you look forward to eliminating in yourself and in others.”

“The Zombie Life” started as a series of monologues that turned into a play after Gavaler decided to collaborate with his sister, Joan Gavaler, the artistic director of the performing arts company Aura CuriAtlas.

Working on the play helped the two grow closer after their mother’s death.

The audience received a questionnaire at the start of the play to immerse themselves in the setting of Dr. Ken’s seminar. (Faith Chang)

“I was worried that we would drift apart without the struggles of taking care of our fading mother keeping us connected,” he said. “A play collaboration was my solution. Probably any play would have been fine, but maybe it’s more than coincidence that we settled on one about grief.”

Grief and death underline the entire performance, as the characters struggle with the concept of what it means to be alive in times of difficulty.

The play tackles uncomfortable topics about struggles that people go through like sex-work, still-birth, alcoholism and racism that might lead them to find solace in ideations of death.

“I want [the audience] to feel uncomfortable while watching the play. I want that discomfort to release itself in laughter, tears and occasional flinching while in the theater. Afterward, I hope the discomfort lingers and haunts them in productive ways,” said Gavaler.

One of the most uncomfortable moments in the play was when Dr. Ken gives the zombies a fake Confederate flag, and they start to take on the voices of white supremacists.

In this scene, many members of the cast had to grapple with the discomfort of performing such extreme characters.

“For being a minority myself, saying and embodying that character was awkward,” Chasida Taylor, who played Shalandis, said. “Because I am not in that mindset. I’m on the other side of it. I’m very far on the other side of it.”

However, the cast and crew believed this scene was important because it made the audience face the haunting realities of white supremacy and the pain it causes.

The cast and crew discussed the scene far in advance to make sure they were okay with tackling the subject matter, and they figured out ways to perform in a way that did not cause them distress.

“We had to get really outlandish just to kind of handle it ourselves. We had to work it back and realize the impact of that scene,” Allison White, who played one of the zombies, said. “We were all very uncomfortable with it so we took it in a whole other direction to cope with it.”

Along with the heavy topics in the dialogue, the physicality of the play was also bold and thought provoking. The zombies all moved in abstract ways that carried the emotions and pains of the stories they told.

As the director, Joam Gavaler used her background in dance to enhance the performance through surreal choreographed movements.

“Movement is my first language, so for me the words are the icing on the cake. The core movement is actually where the most important information lies,” she said.

Professor of Spanish Ellen Mayock saw a production of the show when it first premiered on Zoom during the pandemic. She said that seeing the performance in person was a whole new experience.

“What I saw tonight was completely different,” Mayock said. “The movement and whole motion aspect of it completely transformed the play.”

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