The Alchemist prepares for a “Year of Fear”
"The Canonical Five of Jack the Ripper," a revamping of a 2008 Halloween show, is the first of three to be written by Aaron Kopec this season.
The Alchemist Theatre has earned a reputation for producing a new horror show every Halloween, usually with co-owner Aaron Kopec at the helm in some capacity. In 2013, he’s trying something different: a winter and spring packed full of reanimated versions of former Halloween spectacles.
He calls it the “Year of Fear,” and it starts Thursday with the Alchemist’s production of The Canonical Five of Jack the Ripper, a grim tale of the five confirmed victims of the 19th century serial killer.
The Canonical Five is inspired by Ripper, the first Halloween show produced by the Alchemist back in 2008, but Kopec says it’s not a straight remount. Ripper, written and directed by Jackie Benka, put the emphasis on providing a potential rationale behind the killings; Kopec’s new show (a triple threat; he has writing, directing and design credits) centers on Jack the Ripper’s five confirmed victims, and the experience of being a target in a place where anyone could be a madman in disguise.
“We do offer some options, out of hundreds, for who this killer is,” Kopec said. “But the point is to listen to what these women are going through.”
That new perspective comes with a twist, Kopec says. “I’ll give it away but I don’t know if I should – there’s no blood.” Keeping the blood and gore offstage means The Canonical Five will frighten differently; as each successive killing unfolds, the knowledge of the play’s ultimate result will (“hopefully,” Kopec wryly adds) cultivate a growing, pervasive feeling of dread.
And even should The Canonical Five not be your cup of tea, there’s much more on tap. The “Year of Fear” includes two more official productions, Dracula and House of Horrors: A Chronicle of H.H. Holmes, all leading up to an unofficial coda: a summer production of King Lear.
Dracula, successor to 2009’s Dracula: The Undead, a Kopec adaptation of a Dale Gutzman adaptation of the classic Bram Stoker novel, will be a fairly traditional retelling. Kopec has always loved the story – he still owns a 1st edition copy of his mother’s that he first discovered as a child, and it’s one of the earliest books he can remember enjoying – but the Alchemist’s production, Feb. 28 to March 16, will strip it down to the main characters and plotlines, streamlining it.
House of Horrors, like its Kopec-written predecessor Murder Castle (2010), focuses on H.H. Holmes, one of the United States’ first known serial killers, who constructed a hotel designed to kill and torture his victims. Kopec admits he crammed too many of Holmes’ grim deeds into Murder Castle – the play clocked in at about 3 and a half hours – so House of Horrors, running April 25 to May 11, takes a more focused approach, beginning with a young Holmes and tracking him throughout his construction of the Castle, that same boy whispering in his ear all the while like an evil conscience.
And then there’s King Lear. The Alchemist is pulling out all the stops for the show, with Bo Johnson playing Lear and the Milwaukee Rep’s education coordinator Lena Hoffman directing. Most of the remaining cast isn’t set in stone, but from what he can already see, Kopec can make one simple prediction: “It’s the biggest thing we’ve ever done.”
The rest of 2013 isn’t as easy to predict, simply because Kopec doesn’t know yet what they want to do yet. He did confirm the usual Halloween gig is still on, but exactly what that’ll be is up in the air. “Potentially something different, more fun,” he says. “Maybe. Who knows?”
The Alchemist Theatre’s The Canonical Five of Jack the Ripper runs Jan. 24 to Feb. 9, with shows at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 at the door, or $17 online.