Zombies invade ‘Cherry Orchard’ at Onyx Theatre

Doom and gloom. Tormented souls. And a decaying provincial estate in Czarist Russia, conveniently equipped with decaying zombie corpses to torment those tormented souls.

Welcome to the wacky world of “Anton Chekhov’s ‘Cherry Orchard of the Living Dead,’ ” which premieres this weekend at the Onyx Theatre.

Yes, it’s a comedy. And Chekhov had nothing to do with it. Except, of course, for inspiring writer-director Troy Heard to come up with the madcap monster mash-up in the first place.

Considering Chekhov’s conflicted characters —whom Heard divides into victims and survivors, torn by “their desire to escape, and their constant stasis” — “it made sense to throw some zombies into the mix,” he says.

But first, let’s meet “Cherry Orchard’s” hapless humans, all of whom are in imminent danger of becoming zombie fodder.

It’s 1904, and peripatetic actress Irina Polina Ranevskaya (played by Kellie Wright) has returned to her ancestral home — following her third (or was it her fourth?) farewell tour — with her daughter Masha (Stacia Zinkevich) in tow.

Mme. Ranevskaya has hopes of marrying Masha off to the local scholar, Aleksi Akelseyvich Trofimov (Brandon Burk). At least until she arrives home to discover the presence of Gregorovich Samsonovsky Turgenev (TJ Larsen), the son of serfs who’s grown up to be a doctor.

Alas, he’s the kind of doctor who can’t help meddling in not-quite-medical matters. (Think Dr. Frankenstein, with a Russian accent.) Turns out Dr. T has buried some radioactive materials in an area that happened to be (but of course) an unmarked serf cemetery, inadvertently unleashing a ravenous zombie horde in the process.

And it’s unlikely that doddering servant Anfisa (Taliesin McEnaney) will be much help in any emergency; she’s been half-dead for decades. So it’s up to the rest of the crew to fend off impending disaster.

In other words, vintage Chekhov, with “a random assortment of people stuck in a country house,” Heard notes. Just like Season 2 of “The Walking Dead.”

Indeed, “this is a comedy first,” he adds. “It’s high camp.”

It’s also written “in such a way that if you’ve never heard of Chekhov, you’d still get” the humor, Heard says — although you’ll get more of the jokes “if you have even a passing familiarity” with the play’s inspiration, as well as other Chekhov stage classics, from “Three Sisters” to “The Seagull” and “Uncle Vanya.”

And if you’re a postgraduate literary scholar, you’ll detect even more references: “a little Ibsen, a little Shakespeare, a little ‘Brady Bunch,’ ” Heard jokes.

Speaking of TV, Anfisa’s costume — complete with sagging bagged-rice bosom — owes more than a little to the glory days of “The Carol Burnett Show.”

Heard endorses the Burnett connection, noting that “this is definitely a Carol Burnett world.”

“Cherry Orchard of the Living Dead” is hardly the first time Heard has indulged his penchant for slice-and-dice spoofery; he previously co-wrote and directed 2012’s “Summer Camp: The Musical,” inspired by 1980s teen sex comedies, and staged last Halloween’s community theater send-up “Blood Orgy of the Chainsaw Chorus Line.”

The challenge in such pop-culture genre bending: blending “very contemporary and very classic elements,” he explains, with “style above all.”

The success of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 Jane Austen parody “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” initially sparked the idea for “Cherry Orchard of the Living Dead,” Heard says.

Other directing projects, however, delayed this one until he applied for — and received — a Nevada Arts Council “jackpot grant” to help finance the premiere.

As for the reason behind the continuing popularity of zombie tales, “we got tired of vampires,” Heard quips.

But seriously, folks, “horror reflects our current fears,” he says, citing 1950s tales of mutant monsters such as Godzilla as embodiments of post-nuclear nightmares and ultraviolent 1970s psycho terrors as manifestations of the Vietnam War’s impact.

Contemporary zombie tales, Heard says, may mirror “the dissolution of community,” as people spend more time bonding with their smartphones and computer screens than each other. Except in the event of a zombie attack, in which case “heroes band together and form new communities,” he says.

Developing the production has enabled Heard, his cast and crew to “see what fits” from the script — and what needs reworking.

After all, “there’s only so much you can do in your office, in front of your computer,” the director says, noting “new lines, new gags, new bits” that have emerged during rehearsal.

“Cherry Orchard of the Living Dead” is the second new play to debut in Las Vegas in as many weeks, following last weekend’s premiere of Ernie Curcio’s set-in-Vegas “Corner of Hacienda” at the Cockroach Theatre.

The local theater scene “has grown so much in the past few years,” Heard observes. “When you reach that mass, you’re going to see world premieres.”

Including, he hopes, a life beyond Las Vegas for “Cherry Orchard of the Living Dead.”

For now, however, it’s time to get the zombie invasion on the road.

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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