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Job Loss — And Zombies — Hit The Stage 06:07
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Actress Obehi Janice, right, in "Candyland: A Recession Comedy." (Jess Bidgood for WBUR)
Actress Obehi Janice, right, in "Candyland: A Recession Comedy." (Jess Bidgood for WBUR)

A new play about rampant unemployment and economic turmoil premieres Thursday at Boston Playwrights' Theatre — but it's an unusual example of art imitating life.

The plot? Girl has job, girl loses job, girl has to find a new job in a very rough economy. Nothing new there. But this girl is up against some stiff competition: zombies! Oh, and there are dragons, too.

Before I get to the dragons, or the zombies, let’s start with the girl, Kiki, a 30-something accountant. In the play's first scene, Kiki’s boss asks her to step into his office. She’s worried.

"The person who goes into your office on a Friday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. for the last two months comes out crying and red-faced," Kiki says to her boss.

Then, what Kiki dreads comes true. She complains to one of her girlfriends. "My God, I lost my job," she says. "This is Mount Everest-bad. I’m going to have to move back in with my parents."

That's a realistic enough scene, right? But the backdrop to "Candyland: A Recession Comedy" is anything but.

Now bear with me. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic Boston. At a recent rehearsal, playwright Dawn Simmons sets the scene for me. In 1988, she explains, there was a huge dragon war...

"I think it’s so much better than having a dramatic play about the recession in Boston. There’s a way in which comedy actually gets you through the pain."

Obehi Janice

"...And the dragons came and fought within the city of Boston, possibly within the state of Massachusetts, and sort-of laid waste to everything," she says. "And then within that, this state, this city had to rebuild itself and just as it got to the point where everybody was doing okay, the economy tanked," said Simmons.

Which brings us to present day in the play. Unemployment plagues the city. Jobs are a commodity. Instead of competing for work, people fight — with guns and fists — over positions that might not even exist. Some have turned into zombies. There's cannibalism. Basically it's dog-eat-dog.

One character, Radio, walks us through the wreckage, almost like a DJ.

"Scorcher out today," Radio says. "We haven’t seen heat like this since the dragon war of '88. Eating people, still a no-no, so don’t do it — no matter how delicious they look. We’re in month 16 of the economic holocaust. Unemployment has reached its daily high of 25 percent. Remember, folks, that’s just for the day. More people being laid off every hour. But the Sox up by two in the fifth inning!"

Yup — the Red Sox are still playing. And the T is still running. This twists Simmons' pulpy, Quentin Tarantino-style sci-fi story into something surreal, but human.

"From the zombies to the dragons to the way that unemployment has shaped this community," Simmons said, "that with all of this crazy stuff going on you still have to get through and do the day-to-day stuff. And still at the end of the day it's: Do I have a job? Can I provide for myself? Can I take care of my friends, my family?"

These are the same concerns a lot of us are facing in the midst of the real recession, including actress Obehi Janice.

"It's definitely something that I hear all the time, every day, from a lot of different people, so in that way the play is definitely hitting close to home," she says.

Janice plays Kiki in the play. In the real world she recently lost her day job, and has been struggling through the economic tumble. It can be brutal, but, she says, the play’s absurd world — zombies included — helps.

"I think it's so much better than having a dramatic play about the recession in Boston," she says. "There's a way in which comedy actually gets you through the pain."

Director Nora Long says the apocalyptic play mirrors our reality. For her it channels the undercurrent of stress and anxiety swirling around all of us these days. "The Gulf is filling up with oil and heat waves and natural disasters and wars, and this massive recession where people are losing their jobs and there’s this uncertainty about what’s going to happen when you come into work tomorrow."

Simmons wrote “Candyland” to get people taking about how all of this is making us feel. But she admitted her biggest fear right now is that her sci-fi satire might hit people — especially unemployed people — in the wrong way. She doesn't want to make light of a serious situation.

"And yet I do because humor is such a great way to relieve tension and for everybody to look at somebody and say, 'I’ve been there, I’ve had that conversation, I’ve felt that way before.' And just to know that you’re not alone."

Simmons and her fledgling theater company — New Exhibition Room — are even hosting post-performance dessert parties to continue the conversation with the audience. In the end, though, the play really is a lot of fun — and at times pretty raunchy.

But you might be wondering: Does Kiki get a job? I won't tell — but let's just say there's a bang-bang showdown that would make Quentin Tarantino proud.

"Candyland: A Recession Comedy" opens Thursday night at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and runs through August 14.

This program aired on July 29, 2010.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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