Ambitious high-school production exceeds expectations.
This is the Halloween when Hollywood Gothique champions little haunts that achieve big things, summoning sinister entertainment with creativity instead of money. A prime example is Halls of Horror, a double bill of immersive theatrical productions from the Theatre Department at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, currently wrapping up its second and final weekend. The two stories form an eerie compliment to each other: “Happily Never After” is a brightly colored take on fairy tales; “Isla de las Muñecas” is a dark tale of supernatural revenge.
Created by students (with help from mentors such as Devon Armstrong, whose interactive play Witch! is currently at the Mountain View Mausoleum in Altadena), Halls of Horror is a shoe-string production, relying on donations from parents for production values while adopting a can-do attitude and a “let’s put on a show” enthusiasm that obscure budgetary shortcomings. Staged on the grounds of a high school, the ambitious results are surprisingly effective, achieving the kind of intimate, interactive immediacy that large-scale Halloween events cannot supply.
Halls of Horror: Happily Never After
Of the two productions, Happily Never After comes closer to the feel of a traditional Halloween haunted house, offering a linear walk through a series of settings where characters appear suddenly to deliver scares. But there’s more to it than that: each setting is a mini-scene with action playing out, which the audience must stop and watch, aghast or amused or maybe both.
Traditional happy endings are twisted into tragedy, while the tongue-in-cheek tone of the dialogue and performances provides just enough buffer to turn potential screams into demented laughter (as when we see The Little Mermaid’s tail chopped up and served as the “catch of the day”).
Happily Never After benefits from subject matter that works at this level of production. The fantasy nature of fairy tales justifies colorful settings that suit the settings without having to look realistic. The deconstruction of familiar stories is easy to grasp, and the manic nature of events is well suited to boisterous young performers who want to cut loose.
Through the madness, the Mad Hatter guides the audience, offering not an isle of sanity but rather wry commentary in the form of rhyming couplets. Is she trying to convey a lesson learned from the bizarre activity on display, or is she merely expressing her enjoyment over our distress? Either way, her serious demeanor dominates the production, providing a contrast to the insanity around her that is not comforting but at least stable – until she invites us to her mad tea party at the end. (By the way, hats off to the writers for combining the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Lewis Carrol into their morbid mix of childhood stories gone wrong.)
Halls of Horror: Isla de las Muñecas (Isle of the Dolls)
Performed alternately in Spanish and English, Isla de las Muñecas is more ambitious in structure and serious in tone than “Happily Never After.” There is no sense of humor to smooth over shortcomings in production or performance, which is laudable, even if the end result feels a little rough around the edges.
Set in some quiet backwater, the tale of tragedy, guilt, and supernatural revenge manages to create a surprisingly convincing environment, using fog, light, and a wooden bridge to simulate traversing a patch swampy water, followed by a hut where the tormented protagonist Don Julio resides and a hovel where lurks the source of his torment. The dolls of the title are apparently talismans of some sort, left by unseen hands as a reminder of a tragic death from years ago. What message are they sending, and who is the recipient?
The interactive narrative splits up the audience, assigning them tasks such as fetching a pail of water or taking one of the dolls into the hovel; each of these leads to an encounter with an earthbound soul who died in mysterious circumstances. Accusations fly, along with protestations of innocence; each audience member, seeing only his or her fragment of the story, must sort out the truth from the conflicting statements. But in the end, the dead will not go quietly back into the grave until justice has been served.
Squeezing a lot into a short time, Isla de las Muñecas is decently creepy, depending on one’s personal threshold (on the night we attended, one guest was too terrified to take a doll into the hovel, which threw off the pacing ever so slightly, as someone else had to be selected). The manifestations of the vengeful ghost (different actresses all playing the same character, we think) are very effective, but the guilty protagonist has a little trouble engendering sympathy since by the very nature of being in a horror story, the audience is predisposed to assume his guilt. On the other hand, that makes the ending retribution extremely satisfying.
Halls of Horror: Conclusion
To be clear, this is a high-school production, pitched largely at fellow students, who may be looking for a scare or trying to prove themselves immune to scares but either way are hoping for a good time. So there is an atmosphere of fun on the school premises as roaming characters interact with audience members waiting in line and tease them with hints about what waits inside. Nevertheless, there is some serious ambition on display; this is not just students goofing off to amuse their friends.
Productions at this level are difficult to evaluate. Positive reaction is inevitably a mixture in which “I can’t believe they did that” may outweigh “That was great!” Perhaps if this were a professional, profit-driven effort, we might be more critical. Nevertheless, taken on its own terms, Halls of Horror delivers much more than good intentions. It’s funny, scary, and clever, and the cast are having such a blast that their enthusiasm easily infects the audience.
Of the two productions, Happily Never After achieves its goals more fully. It’s like a simple but enjoyable tune that falls easily within a singer’s range. Isla de las Muñecas is a more complex, trickier melody with a couple of somber notes that would have benefitted from a more experienced vocalist. Even so, it provides effective counterpoint to its companion piece, the two forming a winning combination. Popup haunts in which non-professionals strut their hour upon the stage are increasingly rare in Los Angeles, so it’s nice to report that this one deserves a curtain call.
Our rating of Halls of Horror
This ambitious high-school Halloween production delivers a surprisingly effective immersive theatrical experience. A few seams show, but overall the production has been designed to work well within its budgetary limitations, which pale in comparison to the energy and enthusiasm on display.
Halls of Horror continues on October 27-29, 6:30pm-10pm. The address is 515 E. Fairview Avenue in San Gabriel. Tickets are $25; all proceeds benefit the LACHSA Theatre Department. Recommended for age 10 and over.
For more information, visit lachsa.net/boxoffice.