Kentucky Shakespeare's Takes On Creepy Classics Add Theatrical Fun To Halloween

Sep 28, 2023 at 12:49 pm
From left: Gregory Maupin and Brennan Amonett in "Enter Ghost."
From left: Gregory Maupin and Brennan Amonett in "Enter Ghost." Photo by Bill Brymer

Last summer marked an exciting moment for Kentucky Shakespeare: the tenth summer season under producing artistic director Matt Wallace. In his ten years at the helm, even in the midst of COVID and the ongoing fallout of theaters across the country closing, Wallace and Kentucky Shakespeare have miraculously grown the number of plays they produce each year. 

My fave feature of that fecundity is their yearly Halloween fare. In the last seven years, seeing their yearly spook show has become my favorite theater-based holiday tradition, in part because they keep bringing in new blood, sinking their teeth into a variety of classic scripts and stories. October 4, the company’s eighth Halloween adventure, “The Woman in Black,” opens. It is a Victorian ghost story that played in London’s West End for 34 years. I’ll get back to “The Woman in Black” soon — but first, a brief sketch of the past seven years. 

"Titus Andronicus," 2016-2017

From the beginning of his tenure, Wallace knew he wanted an indoor season for the company and had a lot of ideas about how to make it happen. “This city is such a town of traditions — we really started thinking about that," Wallace told LEO. I started thinking about 'Titus [Andronicus]' and knew I couldn’t do that in Central Park.”  But what made the company take the plunge into Halloween? “The audience response of seeing how many people wanted to try something a little weird, outside the box.” 

In 2016, “Titus” came to life in an empty warehouse in Butchertown, and in 2017 it moved to the (at the time) mostly-empty warehouse in Portland where Louisville Visual Arts makes it home. Both settings felt perfect for Shakespeare’s grisliest play. Right away, in my chosen family, at least, having a Kentucky Shakespeare production in the fall made Halloween, already my favorite holiday, even more special.  

"The War of the Worlds," 2018

After two years of Andronicae, Kentucky Shakespeare switched it up and produced a classic script of a very different sort: Orson Welles’s 1938 radio production of “The War of the Worlds.” The sci-fi drama about alien invaders famously led to mass hysteria when it first aired. Though indubitably a classic, “War of the Worlds” represented a big step — about 300 years away — from Shakespeare’s works. The idea was influenced by associate artistic director Amy Attaway’s occasional guest-hosting duties for WFPL, Louisville Public Radio’s news station. “I love that medium for telling stories. I love radio,” Attaway said. The company partnered with the station, and “War of the Worlds” became another site-specific piece, a performance of a radio play, performed in a radio station. (PS: As a bonus, the performance was recorded, and WFPL airs the radio play every year.)

"Night of the Living Dead," 2019

With the radio play tricks of the trade they learned from “War of the Worlds,“ Attaway and her returning cast worked with the film script of George A. Romero’s seminal zombie movie and created their own adaptation of "Night of the Living Dead." In hindsight, the play was a preview of the tough times to come in 2020: a terrifying rapidly spreading contagion, and lots of radio plays.

"Macbeth," 2020

When the theaters shut down in March of 2020, radio plays zoomed into prominence for the first time since TV took over the airwaves. But Kentucky Shakespeare had been there and done that, so, for their Halloween production, they took it to the streets — well, to the parking lot, offering a drive-in-movie-style live performance of "Macbeth" in the parking lot of Joe Creason State Park. Speaking for myself, seeing live theater in fall 2020 was important, offering hope that live theater would return from its death like slumber.  

"The Turn of the Screw," 2021

Return it did. For Kentucky Shakespeare, it came back with a vengeance. After a real estate deal evicted Kentucky Shakespeare and multiple other arts organizations from the building at 323 W. Broadway formerly known as ArtSpace, Wallace & Co. seized the moment and secured about  $300,000 to renovate and relocate to Old Louisville — which, coincidentally, is America’s largest collection of historic Victorian homes. Their spacious 8,750-square-foot home at 616 Myrtle St. housed the 2021 in-person production of the Victorian horror classic “The Turn of the Screw.” 

Photo by Bill Brymer - Bill Brymer
Bill Brymer
Photo by Bill Brymer

"Enter Ghost," 2022

Another evolution: in 2022, the company turned 616 Myrtle into a maze of rooms and premiered “Enter Ghost,” an immersive haunted house-style retelling of “Hamlet” by Diana Grisanti and Steve Moulds, two of my favorite playwrights (who also happen to have deep Louisville roots). Kentucky Shakespeare sold out shows, added more shows, and sold those out as well. Hopefully that inspires Louisville companies to make more immersive theatre, and I hope Kentucky Shakespeare also continues to premiere new works that complement Shakespeare’s canon.  

Now, as promised, back to “The Woman in Black.” Wallace says that, again, the choice was influenced by the audience: “After ‘Enter Ghost,’ in our audience survey, we asked what [audiences] wanted to see next. What ranked number one was another Victorian horror play.” 

I know almost nothing about the play’s plot — on purpose. But I know it starts with a young and newly engaged solicitor traveling across Europe to attend to some business involving a widow’s mysterious last wishes. Say less. 

But while I’m eagerly awaiting “The Woman in Black,” I also can’t help but jump ahead in my mind to this time next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, contemplating the twists and turns that are to come. More radio plays? More immersive theatre? More Shakespeare? There’s a literal pile of bodies in "Cymbeline." A lesser-known Bram Stoker, like “Lair of the White Worm?” One of Charles Dickens' other ghost stories, maybe “The Haunted Man,” or the evocatively titled “Captain Murderer and the Devil’s Bargain?” Has Kate Hamill written an adaptation of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” yet?

Wallace is keeping mum, only saying this: “I never want to be predictable."