Wicked Lit 2011: Production A Review

Brian David Pope in "The Cask of Amontillado"
Brian David Pope in "The Cask of Amontillado"

Most of the horrifying Halloween events in Los Angeles are tailored to deliver a series of short shocks; though intense, the fear is fleeting - a brief surprise and a shot of adrenalin, followed by a nervous laugh of relief. Few Halloween haunts seek to sustain the sort of prolonged tension that creeps under your skin and freezes the marrow in your bones. This species of shiver requires traditional dramatic values, such as narrative build-up and audience identification. This year's Delusion: A Haunted Play (reviewed here) does a wonderful job of drawing you into the terror with characters and dialogue - it is one of the best Los Angeles Halloween haunts this year - but it is still more of a traditional haunted house than a play. For that subtler, sustained brand of horror, Halloween fans should check out Wicked Lit's innovative productions, currently being staged live within the Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery. These wonderful literary adaptations - based on the works of Poe, Lovecraft, Dickens, and others - are not interactive in the manner of Delusion or of the Theatre 68 Haunted House in Hollywood; however, they fully immerse the audience in a trio of stories, each set in a different time and location. The result is a unique brand of shuddery entertainment, quite distinct from the Halloween Haunted Houses & Hayrides that dominate the October entertainment scene.

The approach to the mausoleum sets the mood immediately; the apparently isolated location in Altadena is perfect for an October fright. The audience gathers in a courtyard outside the building, where a snack table serves coffee and other treats. Everyone receives a program with a color-coded sticker, dividing the audience into three groups. Eventually, three story guides emerge: one for each of the trio of plays that you will see. Each guide leads her group (based on the colored sticker) to a different location, either inside the mausoleum or in the adjoining cemetery grounds. After that performance has ended (each runs approximately a half-hour), you are guided back to the courtyard, from whence a different story guide leads you to the next play.

One logistical note worth making: the initial departure is simultaneous for all three groups, but the plays do not necessarily end at the exact same time, so there may be a waiting period during the interim. You are not supposed to bring food or beverages into the mausoleum, but the vendor will happily sell them to you right up until the second you are called to attend the next performance; it's up to you to keep track of time. It also pays to keep a sharp eye on your group, if you don't want to be left behind while purchasing your trail mix or candy bar.

This year, Wicked Lit is presenting two sets of plays. Production A, which we attended, consists of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Unnamable," Edgar Alan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," and Charles Dickens' "The Chimes." The trio provides a good balance of location and subject matter, from unutterable supernatural horror to more human perfidy, with even a small silver lining tucked into the ominous dark clouds.

John T. Cogan and Michael Prichard in "The Unnamable"
John T. Cogan and Michael Prichard in "The Unnamable"

Set in a graveyard, "The Unnamable" covers the most ground, literally; you will be given flashlights to avoid tripping over the tombstones as you follow two archaeologist searching for a supernatural artifact. The bickering banter between the two feels a bit forced, and the opening minutes are burdened with non-exposition: the question of what is being sought is raised repeatedly, and just as repeatedly not answered. When the information finally emerges, the play kicks into gear, offering some twists and turns and some malevolent entities lurking among the buried dead.

The use of space is marvelously effective, with the first supernatural manifestation glimpsed  at a distance, back lit, its shadows extending through the trees around the audience. Shortly thereafter, an unseen presence is suggested to unnerving effect with rustling branches and waving tree limbs, and the previously glimpsed ghost emerges from a hiding place much closer than expected. Some nice sound work enhances the horror, with the spirit's voice amplified through a reverb (the effect sounds a bit like the demons in THE EVIL DEAD 2).

In the end, "The Unnamable" feels a little bit like a novelty effort, a story with a weak start and unlikable characters, which ultimately pays off thanks to the innovative staging.

Brian David Pope and William Joseph Hill in "The Cask of Amontillado"
Brian David Pope and William Joseph Hill in "The Cask of Amontillado"

Not so with "The Cask of Amontillado." Here, the characters are engaging, if not necessarily likable, and the exposition is delivered in a more subtle manner, implied rather than stated, with the actors conveying the true meaning that lies hidden behind their apparently innocuous dialogue. Paul Millet's script adds a love triangle to explain Montresor's vengeful retribution against Fortunato, luring down into the catacombs with the promise of a chance to imbibe the titular vintage. Set inside the mausoleum corridors, the play takes place in several settings, conveying a sense of moving deeper and deeper into depths from which at least one of the characters will never return alive.

The characters have been slightly adjusted. Fortunato is callow but less obnoxious, emerging as an unfortunate dupe who did not deserve his fate. Consequently, the play builds an almost sickening sense of dread as the familiar story plays out. One can easily imagine why the Wicked Lit producers avoided going interactive with their plays: it is easy to imagine the audience rushing forward to rescue the miserable victim from being entombed alive. The script also serves up a twist at the end, not in Poe's original tale, providing a last-second surprise that deepens the horror (although, technically, it makes little sense*). Even if you have read "The Cask of Amonitllado" many times, the sense of a shared experience, of being within the location, will chill your blood in a way that no other Halloween haunt can hope to achieve.

LizAnne Keigley, Richard Large and Eric Harris in "The Chimes"
LizAnne Keigley, Richard Large and Eric Harris in "The Chimes"

"The Chimes" offers a change of pace:  still scary, but with more sympathetic characters, this tale bears some similarity to Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL, as a cantankerous old man sees a vision of the future that inspires him to change his ways. In this case, our protagonist is haunted not by three Spirits of Christmas but by the goblins of the chimes in the church where he works as caretaker. A poor man, he renounces his daughter, who wants to marry a man of dubious prospects. Voicing regret - a desire to turn back the clock and reconsider his action - the father inadvertently invokes the goblins, who emerge to show him the consequences of his behavior.

Set in the Mountain View Mausoleum's chapel, "The Chimes" offers audiences a chance to sit down while the action takes place around them. The location is perfectly appropriate - for the obvious reason - but the production goes a bit beyond taking a story set in a church and performing it within a church-like venue. The visions of the future are cleverly staged to suggest other locations, especially a suicide from a bridge, with the actor poised on a balcony near the rafters above the audience.  "The Chimes" (like A CHRISTMAS CAROL) is ultimately an optimistic story about the potential to change for the better; however, it does deliver a few Halloween chills in the guise of the goblins, particularly in the performance of Eric Harris, whose commanding voice and presence ring like a Biblical Voice of Judgment.

Although a walking-play, set in a real mausoleum, Wicked Lit's productions should not be confused with traditional Halloween haunted house events. The story guides address you directly, but the characters do not; there are no jump-scares and few shocks, no monsters lurking around corners, waiting to deliver a well-timed "Boo!" Essentially, these are one-act dramas given unique life courtesy of their novel settings and staging. The surroundings set the mood, but the plays live or die on the quality of the drama and the performances. Judged on this standard, Wicked Lit's Production A is a solid success, one that leaves us eager to return and see Production B.

Wicked Lit's Production A continues at the Mountain View Mausoleum (2300 N. Marengo Avenue, Altadena, CA) through November 5; production B runs through November 6. (There are no performances of either production on November 1). Start time is at 8 p.m. sharp. Tickets range from $39-60, see website for details.

FOOTNOTE (Spoiler):

  • In Poe's story, Montresor lures Fortunato into the catacombs to bury him alive so that his body would never be found. In Wicked Lit's adaptation, Montresor wants to marry Fortunato's bride after she becomes a widow. To achieve this goal, Fortunato's body must be discovered, so walling him up in a long-deserted tunnel is not really necessary.