Tribe of Fools' Zombies . . . With Guns contains all the elements Philadelphia Fringe audiences have come to expect from this ensemble: dynamic choreography, great sense of humor, generous helping of hometown in-jokes (is Whiz v. provolone Philly enough for yiz?), and a ridiculous premise with a heart of gold. But this year also brings something unexpected: a dark side.
Full disclosure: I'm not exactly a casual observer of this genre. My ambient zombiverse includes all the usual books, films, and TV shows, plus I've logged more than 800 miles on my "Zombies, Run!" fitness app. That's a lot of one-on-one zombie time, and after a while, it seems obvious it's not really the monsters that make a zeitgeist, but what they represent.
I'm divided on whether the current craze symbolizes a backlash against technology, immigration, nature, or some combination, but Tribe of Fools flips the script on the old undead tropes to reveal another perspective: What if people - good, bad, or indifferent - are the whole problem? The Earth does what it does to adapt and survive; we choose our own adventures, and the choices we make (in this case, choosing the more expedient shooting of zombies instead of playing them some Bob Marley "calming chords") aren't always so wise.
Of course, the team behind Heavy Metal Dance Fag and last year's Two Street loves a face-off, even if faces may actually be chewed off. A trio of mime-clown-vaudevillian walkers in varying states of decay unite against a seriously splintered group of humans, Terry Brennan's trigger-happy Lane threatening the living and semi-departed in equal measure. (Look out also for a "celebrity zombie"; opening night featured Terry Nolen, Arden Theatre's artistic director.)
Peter Smith's direction often takes the production to unexpected places. Jarring emotional shifts, some of which seem silly at first - such as a human-on-human murder followed by a Young Frankenstein-style zombie song-and-dance number - slyly carry the story forward while signaling significant growth in the company's storytelling sophistication. There's plenty of backflipping, butt-kicking action (kudos to Lauren Harries' small but mighty Bree, whose athletic foot- and fist-work must land her in a nightly post-show ice bath), but even better, there's a resonance to this effort, from Paul Kuhn's detritus-strewn set to Brennan's fury to Tara Demmy's pathos (she's sort of a zombie Giulietta Massina) that lasts longer than its fun and flash.
Zombies . . . With Guns
Presented by Tribe of Fools at Luna Theater, 620 S. 8th St., through Saturday.