Wicked Lit Halloween 2015 Review

Author's Note: To quote Sherlock Holmes, I have been "culpably slow" posting this review. But then Holmes only ever had to solve a few murders, not grapple with the aesthetic intricacies of classical horror literature adapted into immersive Halloween theatrical spectacles. That sort of thing takes time.

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Wicked Lit 2015 artwork resizeWith its winning combination of classic literature, amazing special effects, and immersive staging within the grounds of a real mausoleum and cemetery, Wicked Lit has established itself as one of the most extraordinary Halloween events in Los Angeles. Though it lacks the jump-scares of traditional Halloween haunts, its anthology format of tightly knit short dramas engages audiences on a deeper, narrative level, accessing a wider range of emotions: suspense, dread, and (at its best) the kind of powerful catharsis provoked by a watching horrifying story build to a climax right before your eyes - or, in the case of the Wicked Lit Halloween Theatre Festival,  almost literally within reach, the action not merely in front of you, but surrounding you.

It's an experience that's hard to beat, and it's pointless to compare Wicked Lit to other Halloween attractions. The only question is whether each Halloween's presentation matches or exceeds the previous year's. How does the 2015 incarnation of Wicked Lit compare to its predecessors (which won top honors at Hollywood Gothique's Halloween Haunt Awards two years running)? Read on to find out...if you dare!

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The System
Conceived, written and directed by Debbie McMahon
Cast: Alan Abelew, Kevin Dulude, Kyle Fox and Mark Ostrander
Kevin Dulude and Alan Abelew in “The System” – Photo by John Thvedt
Kevin Dulude and Alan Abelew in “The System” – Photo by John Thvedt

Following the template established the past couple of years, Wicked Lit ties its three one-act plays together with a wrap-around story. This strategy overcomes the chief weakness of the anthology format: divided into three groups, each of which follows a different "Story Guide," audiences experience the plays in random order, which prevents the individual dramas from building to an overall climax. The framing story lends structure to the evening's entertainment: a beginning, middle, and end - thus synthesizing the separate plays into a cohesive experience.

This year's wrap-around, "The System" (based on Poe's "The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof.  Fether") is the most clever yet; with it, Wicked Lit goes meta, post-modern, self-referential, or whatever term you want to use. The conceit is that "Wicked Lit" is now part of the story - a system whereby the doctors at the "Mountain View Mortuary and Asylum" effect a cure by allowing the inmates to act out their neurosis as dramas, before the eyes of interested parties (meaning those of us in the audience).

Thus, everything that happens between the individual plays is now part of the overall narrative. Even producers, who make requests for membership and donations, are now cast as bit players, raising money to benefit the System.

There's a sort of giddy insanity to the conceit, which fills the "downtime" between plays to such a degree that it can no longer be considered "downtime." Instead, these interstitial scenes rank among the highlights of this year's Wicked Lit - more for their macabre humor than any fear factor - and they also cast an interesting light on the dramas themselves, which must now be seen as expressions of the patients' mental conditions instead of mere entertainments.

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The Ebony Frame
Adapted by Susannah Myrvold from the story by Edith Nesbit’, directed by Jaime Robledo
Cast: Deborah Dominguez, Kevin Dulude, Joe Fria, Angie Hobin and Tina Van Berckelaer
Wicked Lit 2015 Deborah Dominguez as The Woman in THE EBONY FRAME Photo by John Thvedt.
Deborah Dominguez as The Woman in THE EBONY FRAME Photo by John Thvedt.

This tongue-in-cheek effort portrays the story of a young cad who inherits an ancestral home containing a portrait whose subject, a beautiful young woman, seems hauntingly familiar. When his semi-serious plea that she appear before him comes true (in a clever bit of misdirection, the her image disappears from the portrait), he learns they they were lovers in a past life, and she sold her soul to the devil in order to be able to reunite with him. This is all rather unfortunate for the protagonist's present day fiance, who is cavalierly dumped - and you know what they say about hell having no fury like a woman scorned...

The clever conceit of the play is that its melodramatic developments are handled in an off-hand manner, which renders them amusing rather than bathetic. Most sly of all is the unstated joke: the leading man is such a callow fellow that it's quite literally impossible to imagine a previous incarnation of him ever having ignited the sort of grand passion that would lead to eternal damnation.

Consequently, "The Ebony" frame emerges as a good piece of comic relief, though it's not at all frightening (despite a nicely staged black mass wedding). And the flippant tone undermines the ending: is it supposed to be tragic or funny? And why should we care whether this louse reunites with his eternal love?

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In the Grove of Rashomon
Adapted by Jonathan Josephson from “In A Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, directed by Darin Anthony
Cast: Sachiyo K, Hisato Masuyama, Robert Paterno, Alpha Takahashi, and Kazumi Zatkin
Sachiyo K in “The Grove of Rashomon.” Photo by Daniel Kitayama
Sachiyo K in “The Grove of Rashomon.” Photo by Daniel Kitayama

A sort of supernatural murder-mystery, this Japanese-based play follows a mother searching for a daughter who disappeared after her samurai husband was murdered. Local officials are no help, and the living have little information to offer, so the mother makes a deal with a sorceress, who grants her the power to summon the dead to learn what truly happened.

Fans of Japanese cinema will immediately note that "In the Grove of Rashomon" is based on the same source material that inspired Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon (though in the film only one eyewitness was a spirit summoned from the afterlife). As in the movie, each character tells a version of events that contradicts the other, leaving the audience to ponder the question: is truth elusive, or is it simply the cast that all people are liars?

The staging makes excellent use of the Mountain View Cemetery, with the audience literally following the mother through terrain while she figurative follows the clues in her search for the truth. Unfortunately, the conventions of the mystery genre result in a first half that is mostly exposition; the interesting drama does not kick in until the mother reaches the grove and summons the spirits.

Fortunately, the slow beginning is worth the wait. "In the Grove or Rashomon" uses its supernatural elements not for horror but for pathos (in a way it is quite literally the antithesis of "The Ebony Frame" - the two balance each other perfectly). As the tragic past events play out before the mother's eyes - and ours - leading to their inevitable conclusion (because it has already happened), the emotional impact is devastating. You will water the grove with your tears.

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The Fall of the House of Usher
Adapted by Paul Millet from the story by Edgar Allan Poe, directed by Jeff G. Rack
Cast: Carlos Larkin, Tanya Mironowski, Devon Michaels and Michael Prichard
Wicked Lit 2015 House of Usher
Roderick Usher sings "The Haunted Palace."

If it seems as if Wicked Lit is short on horror this Halloween, fear not - or rather, fear a lot - because the shivers are supplied in "The Fall of the House of Usher." Poe's famous story present challenges for dramatic adaptations: the tale is a sustained mood piece, whose only memorable action occurs in a sudden flurry at the very end; until then, it sustains itself on portentous atmosphere in which the author's use of language conveys a dreadful sense of inchoate menace, embodied in the titular House of Usher - which conveys a double meaning, representing both the physical structure and the family that lives within.

Paul Millet's adaptation sticks to the essentials of the original but beefs up the drama. Here, Roderick Usher is, at least initially, not resigned to passively accepting his fate; rather, he has been studying medicine in hope of discovery a cure for the familial malady afflicting him and his sister Madeline. Hopefully, it's no spoiler to reveal that his efforts are doomed (the title itself more or less tells you how things will end, doesn't it?). The trick is to bring the story to life in a way that makes it interesting even before the feverish climax arrives.

Wicked Lit 2015: Mountain View Mausoleum
The Mountain View Mausoleum stars as the House of Usher,

Jeff Rack's staging achieves this by making the best use yet of Wicked Lit's signature location, the Mountain View Mausoleum, which is perfectly cast as the House of Usher. Though the mausoleum is clearly not a conventional domicile, it suits the Ushers perfectly, and the (quite real) presence of entombed dead is cleverly incorporated into the script, further strengthening Poe's blurring of the distinction between the figurative "House of Usher" and the literal "House of Usher" (which in this case is literally built with dead Ushers in its walls). Thus the artful use of the  setting effectively replaces Poe's artful use of language, imbuing the proceedings with grim dread from beginning to end, and bringing the House of Usher (that is, the building) to live in ways we never expected.

This begins with the opening scene: when Ushers friend and colleague arrives, he is watched from afar by a giant eye peering from the circular window near the top of the mausoleum, reminding us that, in a sense, the House itself is a sentient being, infused with the spirits of the dead Ushers buried within. The effect is perpetuated throughout the rest of the story through the dialogue and performances (special kudos for having Roderick Usher sing "The Haunted Palace," which appears as poem within the story) and reaches its climax with the Fall.

Wicked Lit 2015 House of Usher Madeline
Madeline Usher

You may wonder how a live play can possibly pull off this effect - in a building that clearly has to be left standing, not merely for subsequent performances but also to do its real business of housing the dead. In a technical tour-de-force beyond anything previously seen at Wicked Lit, digital projection and one or two clever physical effects indeed render the convincing illusion that the House of Usher is collapsing around your head, brick upon brick tumbling in a pandemonium of destruction. This may be the first play ever in which the audience, rather than the cast, makes the final exit, escaping the fate that befalls Roderick and his sister (whose reunion is dying embrace is tainted with a whiff of incest). The miracle is that rushed and desperate departure doesn't devolve into frenzied panic provoked by the illusory turmoil.

In "House of Usher," Wicked Lit brings dramaturgy, setting, and special effects together into a perfect synthesis. Halloween horror doesn't get much better than this.

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Conclusion

For all its humor, pathos, and dread, this year's Wicked Lit pales slightly for us in comparison to Wicked Lit 2014 (our personal favorite). In particular, as much as we enjoyed the concept of "The System," we were expecting a more explosive conclusion, closer to Poe's original, in which the revelation that the inmates are running the asylum is quickly followed by the furious outbreak of the actual doctors, returning to either seize control or take revenge (hard to tell in the chaos). That would have provided the perfect climax to the evening, which instead ends on a mildly amusing joke, in which, Spartacus-like, several mad inmates claim to be the real doctor.

A word of advice: As always, it is a good idea to arrive early to the Wicked Lit Halloween Theatre Festival. Even before "The System" officially starts, you can drink in the atmosphere and get in the mood - in this case, abetted by a small tent filled with props and showing a silent black-and-white film purporting to showcase the effectiveness of "The System."

Wicked Lit continues at the Mountain View Mortuary and Cemetery through November 14 on weekends and some weeknights. Check the official website of Unbound Productions for exact dates and ticket prices, or call 818 242 7910. The address is 2300 Marengo Avenue in Altadena. All performances begin at 7:30pm (arrive early to enjoy the pre-show atmosphere).

Interested in other terrifying theatricals and dreadful dramas? Check out out page for Halloween Tours and Shows.

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.