Halloween Review: Wicked Lit 2016

In the Hollywood Gothique pantheon of must-see events, the Wicked Lit Halloween Theatre Festival ranks alongside such attractions as the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, the Reign of Terror Haunted House, Delusion: A Haunted Play, and the Urban Death Tour of Terror: it is so good from one Halloween to the next that extolling its virtues becomes almost monotonous. Every season we have to recalibrate our microscope, increasing the magnification to clarify the incremental variations in quality. Hopefully, the end result is a finer appreciation of the work's aesthetic subtleties that prevents us from becoming jaded by familiarity or disappointed by high expectations. Wicked Lit 2016 proves that, long after the novelty of staging plays in a cemetery has worn off, Unbound Productions can still deliver drama filled horror, pathos, and more than a few surprises.

Camp Mountain View (frame story)
Sam Silverstein in Camp Mountain View (photo-by-daniel-kitayama)
Sam Silverstein in Camp Mountain View (photo-by Daniel Kitayama)

This year's wrap-around (like 2015's "The System") takes a slightly tongue-in-cheek approach. Incorporated into the story as guests at Camp Mountain View, the audience is asked to partake in various activities, such as archery, with comical results (rendered in sound effects as arrows go astray).

More importantly, the setup offers an opportunity for the camp counselors to tell spooky fireside stories. In a sense, the entire evening becomes a series of campfire stories, including the trio of plays that are performed in and around the grounds of the Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery. This unification process creates a cohesive entertainment experience; through there is no narrative connection between the plays, the uneven ebb and flow of Wicked Lit's early years has been eliminated; all the pieces seem to combine into a unified whole.

The characterizations and performances are a little broad, but Sam Silverstein won us over, and Kevin Dulude manages to be funny in a creepy sort of way; there's even a clever call-back to "The System," which we will not reveal. The jokey approach, on its own is not to our personal taste, but in the context of the entire evening, it does provide a useful contrast to the tragedy and terror of the dramas that unfold.

Anansi and the Demons
Anansi
Ariel Brown as a demon (photo by Daniel Kitayama)

After La Loronas and In the Grove of Rashomon, this year's Anansi and the Demons represents Jonathan Josepheson's third effort at bringing cultural diversity to Wicked Lit more, reaching beyond the canon of western horror and gothic literature to craft a story based upon African legends. This may be the best one yet. It begins in media res, with British colonial soldiers escorting the audience into a cemetery in search of a missing African boy, much beloved by the British ambassador. The seemingly hopeless quest takes the characters and the audiences deeper and deeper into demonic territory, where a sorceress named Anansi offers only partial protection, in exchange for certain gifts purloined by her nephew from the ambassador. The demons demand tribute, but will they be satisfied with trinkets, or will they demand human sacrifice?

Anansi and the Demons follows a structure similar to In the Grove of Rashomon - a trek deeper and deeper into a (real) cemetery in search of an answer to a mystery - but it does a better job of creating a sense of immediacy to the quest. The action strikes early, with the unexpected demise of several characters (including the story guides - which leaves the audience feeling more than a little adrift and disoriented). The manifestations of the demons are wonderful in their technological simplicity (essentially large puppets manipulated by visible actors). It's creepy and strange, and the sense of seeing an old-fashioned fable brought to life is enhanced by the artificiality of the presentation. The final monster is a truly wonderful creation, yielding an exciting confrontation for the climax.

Our only quibble is with the denouement, which utilizes a hoary twist ending of a sort that we have never enjoyed. To be fair, the revelation is appropriately foreshadowed by seeds planted earlier in the play, so it does make a certain kind of sense. Nevertheless, we thought it raised a few more questions than it adequately answered: the motivation of two characters is glibly addressed in a brief quip that is far from convincing, and we're left wondering whether a rather elaborate scheme was really necessary to achieve the desired goal.

From Beyond
From Beyond with Dustin Hess and Eric Keitel. Photo by John Thvedt.
Eric Keitel, Dustin Hess  (photo by John Thvedt)

This adaptation of Lovecraft's short story has been considerably improved since it was work-shopped in 2015 during Wicked Lit's summer season. The rough edges in the narrative and performance have been sanded down; the ending has been improved, and the production has been ramped up to an amazing degree. Whether from deliberate strategy or practical considerations, Wicked Lit seems to pick one production every Halloween to be the Awesome Spectacular, and this year, it's "From Beyond."

Building around a police inquiry into the mysterious death or disappearance of a deranged scientist named Crawford Tillinghast (Dustin Hess), the play utilizes a clever structure in which the interrogation of suspect Howard Phillips (Eric Keitel) segues into flashbacks of events being described. Starting in the jail, the story moves to various locations, taking the audience for a trek through the marble corridors of the mausoleum, culminating in the arrival at Tillinghast's attic laboratory.

Lovecraft's premise is simple but disturbing: strange, unseen realities exist all around us, and we're probably better off because our senses arre incapable of perceiving these horrors. Unfortunately for Phillips and the world at large, Tillinghast has created a green, glowing infernal device that reveals these unspeakable horrors to us - and reveals us to them, with fatal results.

The trick to getting Lovecraft off the page is that his tales exist primarily to convey weird concepts that linger in the mind of the reader; plot and characterization are secondary. The script compensates by building the relationship between Phillips and Tillinghast - scientific colleagues and one-time friends, who communicate on the save wavelength and yet still seem to be talking past each other; both are interested in exploring the mysteries of the universe, but one will lean too far into the abyss, while the other totters on the brink, trying to pull himself - and the world - back to sanity.

Richard Large and Eric Keitel (photo by John Thvedt)
Richard Large and Eric Keitel (photo by John Thvedt)

The play's biggest weakness is the ongoing police interrogation, which is rendered in terms that are a bit too predictable: Phillips tells an unbelievable story, and the police refuse to believe it (preferring to think that Phillips shot Tillinghast). Far more interesting would have been to portray the police as eager to exonerate Phillips, believing him to have been duped by a con man who put on a magic lantern show. Then instead of protesting his innocence, Phillips could have desperately confessed to the murder and promised to recreate the details of the crime - all as a ruse to get the officers into Tillinghast's lab in order to destroy the mad scientist's resonator before it could do any more damage.

Drama aside, any adaptation of "From Beyond" succeeds or fails based on how well it can render some tangible equivalent of "a vortex of sound and motion...blurred outlines...a seething column of unrecognisable shapes or clouds..." Such vague details leave room for an imaginative reader to fill in the blanks, but in a live drama, the audience needs to actually see something. Wicked Lit achieves astounding results, with a combination of lighting and physical effects that convey floating, nebulous beings near the device - which seem to be the climactic revelation until something even more colossal and menacing emerges from the distant darkness. Perhaps the most spectacular effect of all is the struggle between Phillips and Tillinghast, which the actors convincingly manage to execute in a simulation of cinematic slow-motion, as Phillips pulls a gun and shoots not the inventor but his invention, thus closing - temporarily - the portal to the Beyond.

"From Beyond" ends on a blackly comic note, involving the character of Officer Littlewit, who also serves as the play's story guide, which prompts us to note: being a story guide at this year's Wicked Lit offers about as much job security as being a red-shirt on Star Trek.

The Shadowy Third
wicked-lit-2016-the-cast-of-the-shadowy-third-photo-by-daniel-kitayama-768x512
Cast of The Shadowy Third (photo by Daniel Kitayama)

A more traditional ghost story, "The Shadowy Third" portrays events that occur when a female psychiatrist makes a house call to determine whether a patient should be committed to an asylum. The task seems straightforward, yet uncertainties abound. The patient's husband is a bit put out by confounded expectations: he was anticipating the doctor to be a reliable old friend, not some new female, only recently licensed. Though apparently devoted and concerned, the husband seems ever so slightly too eager to wrap the examination up quickly; he seems impatient that the doctor plans to make a recommendation to her superior instead of immediately signing commitment papers on the spot.

The sense of unease is exacerbated by the unseen presence of a child, indicated only by a ball that rolls into scene from an indeterminate starting point. The audience quickly guesses what this means - before the doctor, who is preoccupied with other pressing concerns: her patient is desperate to escape from her husband, who she claims is trying to commit her in order to get control of her money. The doctor opts to help her patient escape, but can the two women, one an invalid in a wheelchair, prevail? Will they receive assistance from the unseen presence?

Brooke Clendenen and McKenzie Eckles (photo by Daniel-Kitay)
Brooke Clendenen and McKenzie Eckles (photo by Daniel Kitayama)

Initially, "The Shadowy Third" feels like a throwback to early Wicked Lit productions, which tended to begin with two characters standing around and delivering a massive exposition dump before the actual story got started. The doctor's arrival and her initial discussion with a maid spend too much time laying groundwork. Fortunately, the drama that follows presents an intriguing dilemma: should the doctor believe the respected husband or the "crazy" wife? And if she helps the wife, what are her chances of getting a disabled woman out of the family mansion without being stopped by the husband?

It's a thorny situation, resolved by a sort of spiritus ex machina, which evokes a subtle chill. The triumph of this production is its restraint, keeping its ghost out of sight, suggesting its existence only through sounds and the ubiquitous ball - and the after-effects of justice/retribution, delivered off-stage. This leads to a moment of heartfelt pathos at the very conclusion, a final farewell more likely to provoke viewers into catching a sob in their throats than emitting a scream from their mouths. The supernatural can be not only spooky but ineffably sad as well.

Conclusion

wicked-lit-2016-005 sign postThe 2016 incarnation of Wicked Lit offers an impressive variety: campfire stories, African legends, science fiction, and old-school Gothic ghost stories. As always, the production makes excellent use of the rooms, corridors, and landscape of the Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery, enhancing the settings with lighting and decor to create a truly immersive environment in which the stories come alive an arm's length from the audience - and sometimes less! In particular, the soundscapes seemed even more elaborate and ominous than before, filling the senses with an almost palpable awareness of the settings and what lurks therein: not only are you immersed in this wicked literature; it is immersed in you! Crude shocks are few and far between, but the mysterious, the unseen, and the uncanny abound.

Wicked Lit continues at Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery, with performances on October 16, 19-21, 22-31; November 3-6, 10-12. Pre-show starts at 7:15pm; performances begin at 7:30pm. There is also a Post-Show Back Stage Experience: a dozen guests join the producers and/or directors for a tour through the mausoleum, hearing anecdotes about bring the production to life. The address is 2300 Marengo Ave, Altadena, CA 91001. For more information, call 818 242 7910, or visit: www.unboundproductions.org.

More in this series: 

  1. Wicked Lit 2016: From Beyond photos
  2. Podcast: Wicked Lit 2016 Interviews
  3. Halloween Review: Wicked Lit 2016

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.