Wicked Lit Halloween 2014 Review

Well, it is long past time to give the Devil his due. Hollywood Gothique experienced the latest incarnation of the Wicked Lit Halloween Theatre Festival a few weeks ago, but time and tide have denied us opportunity to focus our analytic skills with sufficient concentration to do justice to the production. Yes, we tossed off a few quick lines in the interim, just enough to avoid remaining silent on the subject, but our continuing inability to complete a full-length review has been gnawing at us like a guilty secret.

Now at last we find ourselves with a few precious hours, undisturbed by prosaic obligations - just enough time to sift through the welter of raw emotions and responses provoked by this Halloween's Wicked Lit; hopefully, with a little alchemy, our inchoate reaction will crystallize into a glowing Philosopher's Stone that can transcend the inadequacy of mere words in order to convey the magic transpiring within the Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery this season. All that having been said, we would offer this summation:

This year's Wicked Lit is absolutely fucking awesome!

Yes, we know - you think we're joking around, milking vulgarity for crude humor. But seriously, there is no other adequate way to express our reaction to this year's production. For five years, Wicked Lit has had the best gimmick of any Halloween event in Los Angeles (classic horror plays staged in a real cemetery!), but this year the locations take a back seat to storytelling more engrossing than ever before, yielding visceral gut reactions and a swirling adrenalin high that last long after the memory of real tombstones and ossuaries have faded.

This is by far Wicked Lit's best production, and much of the reason for that greatness lies in the fact that, rather than provoking the restrained responses one associates with a Masterpiece Theatre approach to the classics, Wicked Lit is hellbent on galvanizing its audience with blood-curdling genre thrills that impact the audience in a profoundly fundamental way: like a good horror movie firing on all cylinders, Wicked Lit drives toward dramatic climaxes that will tempt you to shout, "That kicked ass!"

The Spirits of Walpurgisnacht

Dustin Hess as Franz Mesmer
Dustin Hess as Franz Mesmer

Written and Directed by Charlie Mount and Aurora Long

Per tradition, Wicked Lit presents three short plays based on classic horror literature. As in Halloween 2013, the problem of how to tie three separate vignettes into a satisfyingly unified experience has been solved by the inclusion of an interstitial story that runs during the downtime between the plays.

This year, the audience is entertained by Franz Mesmer, the 19th-century German physician who theorized that a form of mysterious form of natural energy - sometimes called animal magnetism or mesmerism - could be transferred between living beings and inanimate objects.

Mesmer (as personified by Dustin Hess) performs a series of magic acts that are all the more impressive for taking place in a central courtyard, where they can be viewed from 360 degrees. Volunteers from the audience are requested to assist with summoning the spirits, who ring bells and blow horns from behind a curtain - even though the volunteers are behind the curtain, too.

The tone is initially comic, and the focus is more on the routines than on any narrative progression. However, one of Mesmer's psychic experiments eventually goes wrong in a ghastly manner, paving the way for a lugubrious funeral procession that climaxes the evening, leading to the most impressive prestidigitation of all - a miraculous resurrection via re-appearing act.

Though we slightly preferred 2013's interstitial entertainment, The Red Death Experience, Franz Mesmer's routines provided the perfect comic counterpoint to the ghastly horror of the evening's other entertainment.

Note: Wicked Lit performances officially begin at 7:30pm, but it pays to arrive early, to hear Mesmer and his band of entertainers warming up for the evening with a merry little song and dance.

Dracula's Guest

 

Vampire Hunter John T. Cogan confronts blood-sucker Angie-Hobin. Photo-by-Daniel-Kitayama.

Adapted by John Leslie from the story by Bram Stoker, directed by Jeff G. Rack

Published posthumously, Bram Stoker's short story has always been an enigma: allegedly the deleted first chapter of Dracula, (inconsistencies suggest it is actually a vestige of an abandoned, earlier draft of the novel), "Dracula's Guest" relies for its impact on the reader's awareness of what will happen afterward, but how the story's events relate to the novel is unclear. An unnamed first-person narrator (presumably Jonathan Harker) gets lost on his way to Transylvania, but a timely, concerned missive from Dracula prompts a rescue party to arrive in time, suggesting that the narrator is under the Count's protection.

Wicked Lit's adaptation retains the essential idea: Jonathan Harker, in a foolish rush to keep his appointed meeting with Count Dracula, loses his way and winds up in a cemetery. However, instead of merely finding a beautiful and perfectly preserved dead woman in a tomb (as in the story), he encounters two ravenous female vampires. Here, the play borrows an idea from the novel itself, with Dracula's brides eager to sate the blood-lust on the virile young man, but the Count intervening (in this case by proxy) to keep Harker alive - at least until the Englishman has completed the transactions that will enable the Vampire King to travel to England.

Dracula's Guest seems to be Wicked Lit's attempt to recreate the previous vampire effort, Wake Not the Dead from 2012, but the new play is far superior. In its earl seasons, Wicked Lit's dramas tended to fall into a pattern of beginning with lengthy dialogues between two characters, filling in exposition and setting up the story while the audience stood around (literally) waiting for something to happen. Of this year's three plays, Dracula's Guest comes closest to following that pattern, with a rich inn-keeper negotiating with his frightened brother to drive Harker through the night, but there is a dramatic urgency to the scene that immediately sets up audience anticipation for the action to follow.

The staging moves nicely from a mausoleum interior representing the inn to the grounds, where the driver abandons Harker, who wanders into a cemetery; the audience feels as if it is following the action from scene to scene, finally taking a seat in Mountain View's actual cemetery for the confrontation with the vampires. What follows is a sort of supernatural cat-fight, with the two women fighting over Harker: realizing his importance to the Count, the obedient bride resists her hunger, but the other wants to kill Harker to thwart Dracula's plan to leave England.

The action is frantic and intense, and the script improves upon the source text by having the frightened driver return to save Harker - though the cost is dear. When the rescue party finally arrives finally arrives, it is too late to save everyone, and the triumph of the play is that, besides delivering the requisite chills, it also conveys a tragic sense of loss. When the devastated innkeeper declares he wants Harker out of his establishment and on his way as soon as possible ("He's Dracula's guest, not mine"), you feel the pain of his loss.

The gripping tale benefits from the cemetery setting, which is put to excellent use, with lights, shadows, and sounds suggesting unseen horrors in the darkness. As in Stoker's short story, the Count himself never appears, but his invisible hand looms over the action, suggested here by an unseen wolf, whose growls the female vampires seem to understand. Hollywood Gothique would have preferred a more tangible manifestation: a cloaked figure silhouetted in the distance, maybe a line or two from the novel ("How dare you touch him, any of you? How dare you cast eyes on him when I had forbidden it? Back, I tell you all! This man belongs to me! Beware how you meddle with him, or you'll have to deal with me"). Nevertheless, Dracula's Guest builds to a rousing climax, and after the (figurative) curtain has fallen, just when you think you can relax while leaving the cemetery, a final explosive thunderclap will send you leaping out of your skin, reminding you of just how much tension is lingering in your psyche.

Las Lloronas

 

Melissa Grace Perl, one of many faces of La Llorona
Melissa Grace Perl, one of many faces of La Llorona

Adapted by Jonathan Josephson, inspired by the Mexican tale “La Llorona” and real events; directed by Paul Millet

Las Lloronas is the most ambitious of this year's trio of tales - an attempt to synthesize different iterations of an oft-told legend into a cumulative narrative that places several different faces on a recurring archetype. If the result is not completely successful, that hardly matters; the attempt itself is rewarding enough - and frequently very effective.

La Llorona (Spanish for the "Weeping Woman") is supposed to be the ghost of a woman who drowned her children, either to get revenge against her husband or to remove an impediment to a relationship with a man who does not want children. Denied entry into heaven, she wanders the Earth, wailing "Mis Hijos!" ("My Children!").

As the plays' vaguely Satanic story guide (if his sinister mien were not enough, those sharpened fingernails provide a clue) informs us, this story has been told many times, and will be told again - over and over. To embody this eternally recurring tale, four different actresses play the title character, who appears in different guises at different times, from ancient to modern (hence the plural title). Interestingly, the demarcation between the quartet is not clear, with all of the actresses appearing in every episode - for example, one narrating events while another performs the actions. It's an intriguing strategy that engages viewer interest as we seek to keep track of which is which, the distinctions gradually blurring into a composite archetype.

This gambit comes with a downside: Though the concept is fascinating, it inevitably leads to the same basic story being told four successive times. The variations are not quite enough to maintain peak interest from start to finish, and the first version (an Aztec woman, married to Cortez, murders her children when her husband decided to return home to marry a Spanish noble woman) is so heart-rending that it is nearly impossible for the subsequent versions to match the opening salvo (though a well choreographed wedding dance provides an interesting counterpoint to the other narratives).

Along the way, the phantom figure of the Weeping Woman is pushed mostly off-stage. La Llorona makes an initial appearance to capture our attention, before the plays shifts focus to the different back stories explaining her ghostly existence. Thus the horror generated is not so much fear of the supernatural as revulsion against infanticide. Fortunately, the mournful mortuary setting maintains the ambiance of a tragic ghost story, and the spirit of La Llorona re-materializes for a spectacular climax, achieved with imaginative special effects.

Las Lloronas may not fully realize the potential of its ambitious concept, but the melodrama's emphasis on believable horrors (the modern version of La Llorona is inspired by a real-life incident) provides an interesting contrast to the supernatural thrills of the other plays. The story cycle is enhanced by some clever lighting effects (including a slide projector) and strong performances (particularly Joe Camareno), and La Llorona's final appearance is enough to send frightened viewers stumbling in the dark through the mausoleum corridors, seeking sanctuary from the shrieking ghost.

The Monk

Wendy Worthington as a nun with a dark secret
Wendy Worthington as a nun with a dark secret

Adapted by Douglas Clayton, inspired by the novel by Matthew G. Lewis; directed by Debbie McMahon

Ironically, Wicked Lit's greatest achievement for Halloween 2014 is the one that seemed most problematic. Matthew G. Lewis's The Monk is a classic Gothic novel - one of the greatest examples of the form - but its lengthy depiction of the title character's descent into damnation would seem to defy translation to a half-hour drama; however, this adaptation takes only a few key elements and characters, shaping them into a smaller story that fits the format perfectly. As in the original text, we have the admired and sinless Ambrosio (Eric Harris) who is lured into temptation by Matilda (Ember Knight), a woman acting as an emissary for infernal powers, but the focus has shifted from the monk to the temptress, who is here depicted as a woman forced by circumstances into making a pact with an apparently religious figure who turns out to be a personification of the the Devil.

[Sorry: spoilers] This adaptation pushes emotional buttons - and pushes boundaries, landing in adult territory as we see  Ambrosio graphically seduced in a garden. Arriving too late to prevent tragedy, Matilda's would-be lover Lorenzo becomes collateral damage, and a guilt-ridden Ambrosio takes his own life. Satan seems triumphant, having claimed not only Ambrosio's soul but Matilda's as well: in exchange for her service, Matilda will be granted something denied a woman during this era - power. Not only material power but spiritual as well. In a grandiose turn-of-events that is supremely satisfying, we see that the Power of Evil has overplayed its hand: once imbued with her new abilities, Matilda turns them on her Mephistopheles, resurrecting her victims like avengers from beyond the grave and sending them to rend the demon's human form into bloody pieces - an ending completely different but every bit as over-the-top as the novel's. [End Spoilers]

Using Mountain View's chapel and two outdoor settings, the story of The Monk flows smoothly from start to finish, quickly setting up the dilemma that will lead to tragedy and bringing the debauchery to its conclusion like the arrival of an inescapable fate. The horrible sense of goodness corrupted and defiled is palpable, almost vile, which perfectly sets up the twist ending, which rebounds in an unexpected way on its perpetrator. Lewis' novel was a morality play about what can befall a soul that  succumbs to temptation, with a grizzly form of justice meted out in a gruesome climax that extended for the better part of two pages. Here, the moral lesson is pushed aside to emphasize the graphic retribution, which neatly combines a shudder of horror with an ecstatic thrill of triumph. Or putting it another way - if we may be allowed to revert to crude vulgarity once more - we can think of no greater thrill we have experienced this season than seeing the powers of darkness bitch-slapped back into Hell.

The Wicked Lit Back Stage Experience

Take a behind-the-scenes tour of the mausoleum.
Take a behind-the-scenes tour of the mausoleum.

For an extra fee, audience members can purchase a ticket to Wicked Lit that includes an informal behind-the-scenes tour after the plays are over. You can probably imagine the sorts of problem that might face a theatre troupe staging a production inside a real mausoleum - no, strike that. You may think you can imagine the problem, but you have no idea.

The Back Stage Tour hits a handful of major locations (most of which have been used multiple times over the years) while relating colorful anecdotes about the various mishaps that have occurred therein. Our favorite involved the room that was flooded by rain during the run of "The Body Snatcher." It wasn't enough to simply remove the water so that the cast and audience could enter - the play's action involved the lights going out and a character lighting a match on the floor - which, perforce, needed to be absolutely bone-dry!

As much as the mishaps, the tour fascinates with revelations of what happens just outside the audience's view. The mausoleum provides so much atmosphere that you might think Wicked Lit could simply perform their act within its walls, but much more than that goes on: : technicians and sound people hiding around corners, pushing buttons to make sure that effects happen on cue. For a fascinating glimpse of those unseen details, take this entertaining and informative tour.

Conclusion

Joe Camareno as the sinister Story Guide.
Joe Camareno as the sinister Story Guide in Las Lloronas.

Wicked Lit's exploitation of the Moutain View Mausoleum and Cemetery reaches new heights this Halloween. As in 2013, the story guides leading the audience have been more carefully integrated into the plays, and the staging of the action has been crafted to make viewers feel as if they are following the action from scene to scene, not merely being led from one location to the next. The settings have been well chosen - and enhanced more than ever before with remarkable lighting, sounds, and effects.

But all of those features are like bells and whistles on a house organ - decorations to embellish the music being played. What matters is the melody. For Halloween 2014, Wicked Lit pulls out all the stops. Though never crude - not even when depicting the seduction of a monk - the production never shies away from its horrors, never dulls them with a sense of too tasteful restraint. The result has all the impact of an exploitation horror piece that goes unapolagetically for the jugular. The thrills and shocks you experience will last all October - and beyond.

Wicked Lit is staged within the Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery, at 2300 Marengo Ave in Altadena. Remaining performances run Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays on these dates: October 23-26, 29-31; November 1-2, 5-8 (no performances on Sunday, November 9). Tickets range from $35 to $60 for General Admission, or $60 to $85 for General Admission with Back Stage Experience. Mature audiences only (13 and over). Call 818 242 7910 for reservations, or Click here for the official website.