This October’s incarnation of the Wicked Lit Halloween Theatre Festival retains the spooky strengths manifested in previous years while adding a few new ingredients to the witch’s brew. Once again, a trio of terrifying one-act plays is presented within the Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery. This season, there is a bit more playful interactivity with the “Story Guides,” who keep the audience on the right track and then play (sometimes unexpected) roles in the dramas themselves. Wicked Lit also serves up brief mini-performances (poetry readings and storytelling) between the main courses, creating the theatrical equivalent of an elaborate French meal, with multiple entrees separated by appetizing hors d’oeuvre.
You will have to forgive the high-class culinary metaphor. Unbound Productions has always presented Wicked Lit as a haute monde version of horror that eschews cheap shocks in favor of higher aesthetic aspirations, creating a sophisticated experience far removed from other Halloween events in Los Angeles. If you are connoisseur eager to savor a delicate frisson of fear, you will find this sanguinary feast well suited to your palette.
As during previous Halloweens, Wicked Lit begins its presentation in a central gathering area – in this case, a court yard. The audience is divided into three groups, each of which follows a different “story guide” to the location of one of the three plays, which run simultaneously – although with staggered times, so that they do not all begin and end at the same time. After each play, the audience returns to the court yard and waits for the next story guide to lead the way to the next play.
During the intervals, there are reasonably priced snacks, and there are chairs so that you can sit while comparing notes about the play you have just seen. In the past, there was little to do during these intervals, and buying a cup of coffee was a bit of a gamble, because you might finish only one sip before being called to the next performance. More often, you found yourself waiting around for what seemed like interminable time, wishing that you had bought the coffee
These longueurs have been filled with action from the story guides. In between the main acts, you will hear readings from noted fantasy author Neil Gaiman and see mini-stories performed. Best of all is the wickedly playful interactivity of Tina Pugliese, who appears to be a mute flower girl. Fans of Britain’s Hammer Films may seen in her some resemblance to the supporting players who graced the screen in the company’s Gothic horror films in the 1970s: she could be either the innocent peasant girl, doomed to slake the vampire’s thirst, or the seductive temptress, leading victims to their doom. (You may come to your own conclusions after seeing the surprise role she plays in one of the three plays.)
These interactive interstitial performances galvanize the evening’s entertainment far more than this meager description conveys. Without the drear downtime, audience enthusiasm never wanes, and Wicked Lit remains entertaining from beginning to end – quite a feat for an event that runs some three hours.
For Halloween 2012, Wicked Lit presents three new plays, based on classic literature: Count Magnus, The Dead Smile, and Wake Not the Dead. The cumulative impact of the performances is impressive, offering a variety of thrills. Even more than in 2011, the dramas have been tailored to exploit the Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery for atmospheric effect. Forget about breaking down the fourth wall – there is no wall to break: as the audience follows characters from scene to scene, passing through marble hallways and past granite tombstones, there is a wonderful sense of being complete immersed within the settings.
Count Magnus (adapted by Jonathan Josephson, directed by Paul Millet) focuses on Mr. Wraxal (Brandon Massey), a British travel writer who wants to explore the tomb of the title character – an evil man with a vile reputation that the locals would rather forget. The original story by M. R. James does not offer much for a dramatist to work with (it is a masterpiece of suggestion, in which very little actually happens on stage); the adaptation follows the old Hollywood strategy of taking a few character names and other bits and pieces, then synthesizing them into essentially an original tale. Unfortunately, the rather modern feel of James’ Victorian ghost story (an early depiction of the randomness of fate, in which the protagonist is punished for nothing more than idly wishing to meet the Count) is somewhat muted in the adaption, which depicts Wraxal as a more aggressive man, courting his own disaster by ignoring warnings to avoid the tomb (an approach not out of keeping with James’ other stories, in which antiquarians frequently found themselves bedeviled for sticking their noses into the wrong places).
Set mostly outside the mausoleum’s main entrance, Count Magnus makes clever use of projected footage to fill in the Count’s back story, and the ending – set inside the mausoleum – manages to present a horrific denoument worthy of the unnamed atrocity perpetrated in the short story (which tells us only that a jury fainted upon seeing the victim’s body). The only weakness here is the opening, which presents essentially the same scene twice: Mr. Wraxal attempts to talk first one, then another, man into letting him see the tomb; one would have been enough to make the point that he had been warned to put his curiosity aside and leave well enough alone.
The Dead Smile (based on the story by F. Marion Crawford, adapted and directed by Jeff G. Rack) boasts an old chestnut – a family curse – to good effect. A young man (Eric Keitel) defies his father (Michael Prichard) by becoming engaged to a woman of lower social station, but the act of defiance has unfortunate consequences. The most elaborate of the three plays, The Dead Smile features numerous scenes set in a variety of locations, both inside and out. The old school approach to horror is enhanced with rain effects (don’t worry – you are safely inside, warm and dry), and there is classic “ghost at the window” scene (which plants the first seeds of doubt that eventually blossom into a disturbing revelation that casts new light upon the doomed engagement). There is also an impressively ghastly makeup that is kept mostly hidden – saved for an unnerving unmasking, a la the Phantom of the Opera. The ending here falls slightly flat: the clues are put so carefully into place that the conclusion is perhaps a bit too inevitable, mitigating the shock of the final blackout. Not to slight the other performers, who all deserve their round of applause, but Eric Harris is a real standout as the story guide for this episode.
Wake Not the Dead (based on Johann Ludwig Tieck’s story, adapted by Paul Millet, directed by Douglas Clayton) offers a traditional vampire tale, expressed in a modern idiom. Walter (Michael Perl) seeks help from Swanhilde, his former wife (Katie Pelensky), now living in a monastery during a plague. Walter’s new wife, Brunhilde (Susannah Mryvold), is draining the life out of the entire countryside – including the son that Swanhilde bore him. It turns out that Brunhilde was actually Walter’s first wife: she died, and Walter married Swanhilde, but yearning for the lustful passion he used to share with Brunhilde, he resurrected her with the help of a alchemist. Unfortunately, in order to reciprocate Walter’s desires, Brunhilde needs warm blood from living victims. In order to save her child, Swanhilde agrees to help the man who spurned her, leading to a confrontation in the cemetery with both the seductive temptress and the alchemist – who turns out to be the Devil himself.
Tieck’s morality tale suffers a bit from being forced to fit the available locations: the wild passion between Walter and Brunhilde (which is juice that fuels the whole story) takes place entirely off-stage, recounted only in dialogue. When the setting shifts from the chapel interior to the cemetery outside, the action picks up considerably. The slightly jarring, modern sound of the dialogue seems to have set the stage for a contemporary take on the vampire myth, which plays out like a campy Euro-trash wet dream, with Brunhilde focusing her seductive charms not on Walter but on Swanhilde. (Nothing like a little girl-on-girl tombstone action to get the blood pumping!) Just when it seems as if the story is spiralling downward into exploitation sleaze, Walter finally mans up and steps forward, vanquishing the evil and (hopefully) saving his own soul in a manner that is literally and figuratively heart-rending. Here, the power of the cemetery setting is strongest after the action has played out, allowing viewers to process the events while slowing picking their way through the tombstones back toward the court yard.
Overall, we think the Wicked Lit adaptations tend to be a bit too front-loaded with expository dialogue. Every single one of this year’s plays begins with an extended conversation between two people, filling us in on the back story; then one character makes a request, which the other character denies, leading to “dramatic conflict” that is really little more than a delaying technique before getting the story really started. The biggest offender here is Count Magnus, which (as mentioned above) does the “denied request” routine twice; but all of the plays could benefit from some judicious trimming. That said, the slow-boil approach allows pressure to build nice and steady, until the cauldron inevitably explodes with horror at the climax.
Judging from the Wicked Lit plays offered in 2010 and 2011, we see that Unbound Productions is refining and improving its unique approach to theatre every year. Although it is not inconceivable that these dramas could be staged conventionally, the current versions offer an experience impossible to duplicate through a proscenium arch. This is not merely a matter of an extra layer of atmosphere courtesy of a real location; Unbound Productions has become increasingly clever about using their story guides to tie the Wicked Lit plays together. Once upon a time, these guides merely led you from one location to another; now they play roles in the action -sometimes, overlapping more than one play. Combined with the new interactivity and mini-performances, this blurs the line between performances, creating a greater sense of being continuously immersed in Wicked Lit’s imaginatively theatrical horror show.
You can certainly find scarier Halloween events in Los Angeles, but with all their toil and trouble, none of them will create a bubble that surrounds you from beginning to end, as if you had entered another world. Wicked Lit is a three-hour excursion into a sinister realm where you sample three vintages of various complexity and character; the occasional fault does little to diminish the excellent finish, which lingers on the palette like the aftertaste of some dark delicacy.
Wicked Lit continues on October 25, 31, November 1-4, 8-10. The Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery is located at 2300 Marengo Ave, Altadena, CA 91001. Prices are $39-55 (includes all three plays). Performances begin promptly at 7:30pm. Call (818) 242 7910 for reservations or visit the website.
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