NIGHT OF THE LIVING ZOO returned for its second Halloween on Friday, October 24. When the one-night-only event made its debut in 2013 (reviewed here), it was essentially a night-time trip to the the Los Angeles Zoo, with a Halloween layover. There were sinister sound effects, rolling fog, and a handful of roaming ghouls, but little in the way of Halloween-themed entertainment: a scary walk-through the Zombie Caves; the Sideshow Sirens on stage in the Adventure Theatre; and a costume contest. This year witnessed an almost total reversal of the formula: the Halloween layover was trimmed back, but Night of the Living Zoo provided a full evening's worth of Halloween entertainment, thanks to the presence of Drama After Dark, a theatre troupe that performs dramatic readings of works by Poe and Edward Gorey in outdoor settings. It's hard to imagine a more perfect fit: the Los Angeles Zoo provided a variety of lovely settings, and Drama After Dark filled the void with more than enough Halloween horrors to chill your blood.
CREATURES OF THE NIGHT
The first thing Hollywood Gothique noticed upon entering Night of the Living Zoo - that is, the first thing after the enormous dragon roaring as visitors passed through the entrance - was that the festive atmosphere from Halloween 2014 was muted. The fog and the roaming ghouls were gone, replaced by silent, blinking Jack O'Lanterns in the dark foliage. Though there was still a DJ and a costume contest up the hill, the music wafting down from the Tom Mankiewicz Conservation Carousel was...well, the kind of music that could be described as "wafting" - not the thumping dance beat from 2014. In fact, if not for the costumed guests, there would have been very little to indicate that Night of the Living Zoo was a Halloween event: the occasional witch over a cauldron; a crate thrashing with an angry, unseen creature inside; a trio of marble busts singing a spooky Halloween song.
This change in tone is understandable. Though we enjoyed the more raucous party atmosphere of the event's debut, we rather wondered about its impact on the L.A. Zoo's animal population: those unfortunate enough not to be nocturnal probably lost a night's sleep.
Those nocturnal inhabitants remain a key feature of Night of the Living Zoo, and Hollywood Gothique enjoyed a stroll through the "Lair," which houses all manner of strange invertebrates, amphibians, and reptiles, including scorpions, Gila Monsters, rattlesnakes, and a humongous salamander that seemed too big to believe. We also enjoyed "I Don't Want to Suck Your Blood" - the informative and fun outdoor talk on bats, which proliferate in the zoo area (no real specimens on view in the lecture, unfortunately - just photographs). There was a lecture on odd adaptations, titled "Scaled, Slimy & Strange," and "Creepy Creature Encounters" gave visitors a chance to pet hedgehogs and armadillos. There were various opportunities to see animals feeding, including the Komodo Dragon (a species that once passed for a dinosaur in low-budget movies).
DRAMA AFTER DARK: A NIGHT OF THE MACABRE WITH POE AND GOREY
Hollyood Gothique was frankly disappointed by the dilution of the Halloween atmosphere at this year's Night of the Living Zoo. However, our disappointment melted away in the fact of the remarkable performances by Drama After Dark. As you know from our 2013 review, Drama After Dark's Night of the Macabre with Poe and Gorey consists of fourteen different plays, performed at half-hour intervals in scattered locations, forcing audiences to pick and choose which ones they can reach within the allotted time frame. For Night of the Living Zoo, Drama After Dark restricted themselves to eight plays: Gorey Stories, The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Oval Portrait, The Raven, The Tell Tale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado, The Black Cat, and The Fall of the House of Usher.
The Fall of the House of Usher
Having seen five of these last year, Hollywood Gothique opted to sample the horrors provided by three we missed last year, starting with The Fall of the House of Usher, performed in the Adventure Theatre. Performed by Finn White and directed by Tally Briggs, this is probably the most challenging of the performances. Unlike the Wicked Lit Halloween Theatre Festival, Drama After Dark does not adapt the stories into plays; it presents the original texts in straight dramatic readings, with minimal props and settings (a chair, some candles, etc).
This particular Poe tale lacks the visceral punch of his "confessional" stories (in which murders explain their actions); the horror here is more metaphysical, requiring the actor to bring the rather florid prose to life, so that we can not only picture in our mind's eye what is being described but also sense the ominous atmosphere imbuing the titular manse. It's not an easy task, and occasionally we felt this story was better suited to the page, where a reader could pause to savor the language; but White built his performance to an appropriately satisfying climax as the House of Usher crumbled into the tarn at the end.
Gorey Stories is a set of four ghastly pieces of poetry by Edward Gorey: The Gashlycrumb Tinies; The Green Beads; The Insect God; and The Wuggly Ump. Performed by Michael T. COleman, Mat Lageman, Tommy Mack, and Tally Briggs (who also directed), My Gorey Group emphasized macabre humor rather than outright horror, providing an effective counterpoint to the Poe performances.
Unfortunately, the location (Selig Plaza) was played by ambient noise from the nearby freeway, making it difficult to hear clearly; the problem was aggravated by the comically exaggerated French accents of the performers. Nevertheless, enough enthusiasm came through, and in the case of The Wuggly Ump, the exact sense of the story is perhaps less important than the sound of the words (rather like Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky").
The highlight for us was the reading of The Insect God, presented as a sort of tag-team effort, with the actors trading off verses, each read as a celebrity impersonation. We heard everything from William Shatner to Gilbert Gottfried, but our favorite was Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.
The Cask of Amontillado
Saving the best for last, we headed to the Winnick Family Children's Zoo Caves for The Cask of Amontillado, performed by Michael Cabler and A Jeffrey Schoenberg, who also directed. Unlike Drama After Dark's other Poe performances, which tend to be presented as monologues, this presentation offered a pair of actors performing the dialogue from the story, creating an experience much closer to a traditional play (though still presenting the text verbatim).
This famous tale of vengeance (for motivations that remain obscure) is chilling on the page - and even more so when brought to life in such a perfect setting, with the caves standing in for the damp catacombs of Montresor (Schoenberg), who lures his victim Fortunato (Cabler) with the promise of the titular vintage, only to wall him up in a makeshift tomb. The dim blue lighting of the caves, enhanced by a few feeble (artificial) candles, created a claustrophobic atmosphere as oppressive as anything Poe could summon with words, and the clever staging made could use of the space, with the actors weaving in and out of the audience, and traversing the space behind the seats to circumvent stalactites and other rocky formations.
The finale, with Fortunato invisible but still audible after disappearing off stage to represent being "walled up," was genuinely unnerving; his pathetic cries and the jangling of the chain binding sent shivers through the audience, who understood - better than Montresor himself - why his murderous "heart grew sick" near the completion of his crime. Wicked Lit performed a substantially altered version of The Cask of Amontillado a few years ago, but Drama After Dark's version was far more effective. Not to diminish the the other performances, but The Cask of Amontillado is our favorite of the Drama After Dark plays we have seen - and it stands high the Halloween horror highlights of 2014.
Night of the Living Zoo offered "Vicious Victuals" (with seasonal names such as Nos-PHO-ratu) at four locations around the grounds, but the food options were relatively limited - mostly kettlecorn and garlic fries. There were a handful of makeshift bars set up in strategic locations; admission includes two free beverages (wine, beer or soda), but cocktails were sold separately. The "Haunted Hideaway" offered a relatively secluded area to relax and enjoy libations while listening to animated statues singing about the joys of Halloween.
Despite the diminished Halloween ambiance of this year's Night of the Living Zoo, Hollywood Gothique enjoyed the event much more, thanks to the presence of Drama After Dark - which hopefully will return for Halloween 2015.
Other than that, our biggest disappointment was Reggie the World-Famous Alligator, who once again refused to make a night-time appearance. We consoled ourselves with the sight of an anonymous gavial floating silently with his thin, crocodilian nose just above the surface of his pond. It was too dark to get a picture, but the creature looked something like one in the embedded photograph.
Night of the Living Zoo is a one-night only Halloween event at the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens, 5333 Zoo Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90027. Phone: (323) 644-4200. Check the zoo's website next year to see what is in store for Halloween 2015.
Drama After Dark: A Night of the Macabre with Poe and Gorey is usually performed at The Huntington Library on one night only during the Halloween season. The address is 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, CA 91108. Get more information at their Facebook page.