Actors Guild of Lexington's artistic director, Eric Seale, is not usually impressed by zombie mashups like the recent Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
But when he came across the 2008 play William Shakespeare's Land of the Dead by John Heimbuch, he knew he had found a gem of a script that bucked the undead trend even as it seemed to play into it.
"It's not a gimmick," Seale says. "It's a smart script, the plot's great, the research is phenomenal."
Land of the Dead, directed by Seale, opens this weekend and continues through May 19.
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The play is set in 1599 during the opening night of Shakespeare's Henry V at the Globe Theatre. With a devastating plague spreading throughout London, Queen Elizabeth (played at AGL by Sharon Sikorski) takes refuge in the theater, which is quarantined as one of the few safe places in the city. However, the company's costumer, Kate (Hayley Williams), is bitten by a plague-ridden madman, and the players, audience and Shakespeare (Tim Hull) are soon fighting for their lives.
"The play never actually refers to them as zombies because they wouldn't have had that word in 1599," Seale says.
He adds that Heimbuch's script, which takes some artistic liberties with historic events, uses historical tragedies including the Black Death and an outbreak of a fire to account for the legions of zombies that swarm the Globe.
Seale emphasizes that what happens in the theater is a lot more sophisticated than Shakespeare vs. zombies.
Heimbuch puts all of the major characters in Shakespeare's life — including writer-lawyer Francis Bacon (Matt Seckman), who some scholars argue might have written Shakespeare's plays; and Will Kemp (Pete Sears), a celebrated actor who had a falling out with Shakespeare — into the crucible of the Globe, which has become a fortress against the undead.
"Shakespeare is what holds all of the characters together, and his relationships have a huge arc," Seale says.
The characters' relationships, arguments and even language cleverly overlap with history and Shakespearean scholarship.
"There are a lot of references to the text of Shakespeare plays that haven't been written yet," he says. "At one point, Shakespeare says, 'I hear words on the street and I pen them down.'' There's a lot of Hamlet references throughout."
But part of the play's appeal, like Shakespeare's plays themselves, is that Heimbuch's script is layered to accommodate audiences from different walks of life and different theatrical backgrounds.
Seale was delighted to find pop culture references peppered throughout the script.
"If you're a pop culture person, there are tons of lines and parallels in the play," he says. "There are Shakespeare equivalents to lines in The Night of the Living Dead, for instance."
And when Seale had a sneaking suspicion there was a subtle reference to an episode of The Simpsons in Heimbuch's script, he emailed the playwright and learned he was right.
Although the play is steeped in solid historical research, there comes a point when history as we know it is thrown out the window and all bets are off.
And because there is an enormous cast of zombies, with many of the main characters "turning" into what Seale calls "the afflicted," it was necessary for him to develop a directorial vision as to what kinds of zombies might exist in Shakespeare's world.
"I wanted to create our own," Seale says. "We tried to get different social classes represented, from the peasant class to the superiors. I had some ideas, but I wanted the actors to have a lot of input.
"I had a whole zombie day where all the afflicted came out, and we watched clips from zombie movies. We played a bizarre version of red light/green light between the modern zombies, which are very fast, and the classic lurching zombies out in the parking lot."
IF YOU GO
'William Shakespeare's Land of the Dead'
What: Actors Guild of Lexington's production of John Heimbuch's 2008 play.
When: 8 p.m. May 10-11, 17-18; 2 p.m. May 12, 19
Where: AGL, 4383 Old Harrodsburg Rd.
Tickets: $20 adults, $15 students and seniors, $10 military. Available at 1-866-811-4111 or Actors-guild.org.