Unbound Productions' latest effort (which ran for three weekends in July) offered an uneven one-two punch: a staged reading of Lovecraft's "From Beyond" and an adaptation of W.W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw." Though the first blow landed with little impact, the second delivered a knockout as powerful as anything Wicked Lit has produced.
Like Unbound's annual Wicked Lit Halloween Theatre Festival, this "Summer Wicked Lit Installation" was staged within the Mountain View Moratorium and Cemetery in Altadena; however, the presentation was much simpler. Both plays were one-acts set in a single location, allowing the audience to sit for their duration instead of following the action through the corridors of the mausoleum; the only walking required was to get to and from the locations. As usual, there were "story guides" who lead the audience to the staging areas and played supporting roles in the dramas.
H.P. Lovecraft's From Beyond
Adapted by Trey Nichols. Directed by James Castle Stevens
Set in Mountain View's chapel, the adaption of "From Beyond" came across as a work-in-progress, not only because it was a staged reading, with actors holding scripts in hand, but because the play had not yet cracked the difficulty of transferring Lovecraft's tale to the medium of live performance. The original is a short, first-person account of the narrator's experience with a friend, Crawford Tillinghast, a scientist who has invented a device that opens human senses to horrible realities that lie beyond normal perception. The terror arises not so much from the events as from the concept that, if ignorance is bliss, then we might rightly fear the shock and awe that would result from having the blinders ripped from our eyes.
The adaptation offered a framing device, with the narrator, here named Howard Phillips (Eric Keitel), in police custody, explaining how he came to be found with a revolver in his hand, unconscious, lying next to Tillinghast's body. It was an interesting set-up, casting the audience as new recruits listening in on an interrogation, but the execution was essentially a lengthy monologue by Phillips, punctuated with occasional skeptical comments from the police or, worse yet, simple filler along the lines of "please go on" and "tell me more."
The script incorporated several chunks of Lovecraft's dialogue, which was both a blessing and a curse - the author's overwrought prose works best when delivered by someone wearing a straight-jacket. Dustin Hess as Tillinghast managed the appropriately excessive scientific zeal, but Keitel seemed ill at ease with the melodramatic rhetoric, perhaps because Phillips is not really a character but merely a narrative device used to convey events to the audience.
As the police officers asking the questions, Chairman Barnes and Justin Radford had little to do. Radford's character (who also served as story guide) was supposed to be comedy relief; we know this because his name was Deputy Littlewits, not because he said or did anything funny.
There were a couple of nicely staged transitions to get us out of the police station and into flashbacks showing the events. When Tillinghast flips the switch on his invention, the resulting light show, scattered across the wall behind the chapel's alter, was sufficiently eerie to suggest the horrors gradually becoming visible to Phillips' eyes, and the scene did generate a fair share of unease with the revelation that the mad scientist was planning not merely to show off his invention but to sacrifice Phillips to the invisible horrors revealed by the device. Unfortunately, the play ends with a misguided attempt to add an extra twist, which requires Phillips to act in a rather non-sensical way, essentially walking back into the lion's den, foolishly thinking he can control the forces from beyond that he so recently escaped.
Hopefully, "From Beyond" can be work-shopped into something more solid; with a full-blown theatrical rendering, it could be quite a treat.
W.W. Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw
Adapted by Jeff G. Rack. Directed by Paul Millet.
After "From Beyond," Deputy Littlewits handed the audience off to "The Gentlemen" (Kyle Fox), a veddy British and very funny story guide, who led us upstairs, pausing nervously on the way to fill time with awkward jokes while audience members took advantage of a bathroom break, and finally seated us in the gallery room for "The Monkey's Paw,"
which reused the fine interior set seen during Wicked Lit's Halloween 2015's production of "Dracula's Guest." (Update: No, it did not. Click the link to learn more.)
Jacobs' story is much more supremely suited to theatrical adaptation, containing a brief series of events that unfolds with a fatalistically pre-determined logic, leading to a terrifying climax. Herbert "(Richard Large) receives a visit from old friend Major Morris (Raymond-Kym Suttle), a veteran whose facial scars and wounded arm we first attribute to the war - though by the end of the tale we may have other ideas. Morris is in possession of the titular monkey's paw, an amulet cursed by an East Indian sorcerer to prove that tampering with Fate leads to disaster. The paw grants its owner three wishes, but the results serve only to remind foolish humans to beware the adage, "Be careful what you wish for..."
Eager to be rid of it, Morris gives it to Herbert, but not without warning him against it. Richard, at the urging of his wife Alice (Jennifer Chun) wishes for money, which soon arrives - in the form of a settlement for a workplace accident claiming the life of a family member. The distraught Alice demands that Richard use the monkey's paw to resurrect the dead, but the wished-for family reunion is marred by an ugly thought: the victim died a grizzly death that left his body unrecognizable. The only way to avert disaster is to use the paw a third time...
Though the action takes place over several days, the staging - with a few deft exits and entrances to suggest time lapses - kept the pace moving as if the events were unfolding in real time, in a single location, creating a very compressed theatrical experience that condensed the tension tighter and tighter until it felt virtually palpable. The climactic resurrection - implied with shadows and an implacable knocking on the door - was a chilling tour-de-force of suggestive horror, as effective as any graphic depiction.
The cast, including Eric DeLoretta as Stanley, all gave strong performances, but the standout was Suttle as Major Morris, whose eagerness to get rid of the monkey's paw is almost - but not quite - matched by his qualms over bequeathing it to its next victim. The atmospheric set, enhanced with ominous sound effects and lighting cues, certainly immersed the audience in the action - not least because the small venue ensures that no viewer is farther than a few yards from the action.
If there was a small note of disappointment in "The Monkey's Paw" it lies not in the story or the stage adaptation but in audience expectations. In the century since Jacob's tale was first published, so many zombies - brain-eating and otherwise - have shambled across the movie screen that viewers almost inevitably expects to see something at the end: a rotting face, a skeletal hand. Nevertheless, we appreciate the restraint it took to retain the text's original approach, which was more in the tradition of a shivery British ghost story than nerve-twisting grue-fest.
The result was one of Wicked Lit's best short studies in terror; though presented "off-season," it was certainly worthy of being incorporated into the annual Halloween Theatre Festival. Staging it in the middle of summer was a fine way providing Halloween horror addicts with a much-needed fix while waiting for October to roll around.
The next Wicked Lit event takes place in August at the Huntington Library.