Mountain View Mortuary, Altadena, CA
For the past ten years, Wicked Lit has been thrilling audiences with its captivating theatrical performances set outside of a traditional stage. Originated by Paul Millet and Jonathan Josephson, and later joined by Jeff Rack, what became Wicked Lit was first imagined in 2007 as the possibilities of how a Halloween theatre festival might manifest, then realized two years later at the famed Greystone Mansion of Beverly Hills, where the first performances were held. Under the umbrella of Unbound Productions, this early innovator of immersive theater soon relocated to its current home at the Mountain View Mortuary and Cemetery, in Alta Dena. And over the past decade, it has brought adapted literary pieces of both the obscure and the renown to a dynamic stage setting that is bound only by the spaces and environment of its macabre setting.
Although we at Westcoaster have known about Wicked Lit for several years, we were only able to experience it for the first time last year, after Halloween, at the end of its run. Nonetheless, we fell in love with the Wicked Lit experience from the moment the pre-show began. Amidst the eerie yet beautiful cemetery at Mountain View and its majestic mausoleum building, Wicked Lit provided a tri-part production showcasing three stories—a horrific ghost tale in The Damned Thing, a bold, swashbuckling adventure in the vein of Indiana Jones in Thoth’s Labyrinth, and a brooding, ghastly tale of woe and haunting in The Open Door—all enveloped by the purgatory of “Liliom,” the organizing premise comprising the pre-show, intermissions, and epilogue of the evening’s Wicked Lit production that provided introductions and comparisons to each show and featured its own unfolding story about souls waiting to enter heaven—each with his or her own dark past, sins, guilt, and secrets.
Each show provided arresting performances that took us all around the grounds of the cemetery and even across the street into the adjunct plot, not to mention within the grand mausoleum building itself and its associated spaces. Beyond just the creepy weight on one’s psyche that comes from wandering a graveyard at night, the actors, lighting, and theatrical effects of the plays all combined to transport audiences into a thoroughly convincing world of spooky horror and cutting emotion.
We eagerly returned to the Mountain View Mortuary this past Sunday evening with excited anticipation for this year’s Wicked Lit adventure.
This year’s Wicked Lit comes with several notable changes to the traditional formula. Rather than three stories, there are only two: The Chimes: A Goblin Story and Teig O’Kane and the Corpse. There is also no surrounding pre-show, intermission, and post-show that weaves its own interconnected tale. Instead, a pair of hosts for the “Mountain View Museum” serves as the introductory devices for the tales, sharing insights and guiding guests to their appropriate settings, where the stories and actors emerge. Rather than roam throughout the Mountain View property, this year’s production is located entirely indoors, within the mausoleum building. Guests do need to climb stairs, but they cover a significantly less amount of ground compared to 2017.
The result is an overall running time that has been roughly cut in half from two and a half hours to 75 minutes. Thankfully, the price is also reduced—$40-$45 a person from last year’s nearly double that—and there are two performances each night as opposed to one in previous years. Though this does mean less show compared to previous Wicked Lit’s (different seasonal Unbound Productions presentations have featured as little as two or one story), it also means a more accessible price point that can attract a broader audience, plus more chances to enjoy the show.
Arriving guests are asked to street park on Alameda Street, along the north side of the property, this year. Check-in occurs at the gates to the mausoleum building, and each guest or guest group is given a program with a colored dot that corresponds to their grouping for the show. With two tales being told this year, the rotation is simple: after introductory words, one group heads downstairs to behold The Chimes, while the other moves upstairs to witness The Corpse. After an intermission in the majestic grand hall, the groups switch.
As selection would have it, we were part of the “green group,” which meant our first production was The Chimes: A Goblin Story.
This production is actually a returning story for Wicked Lit, originally debuting in 2010 . Adapted from a short story of the same name and set in the holiday season of 1800s Britain, The Chimes narrates the story of one pessimistic and poor Toby Veck, middle-aged custodian of a local church, whose conflict with his caring daughter, Meg, and her loving but unaccomplished fiancé, Richard, brings about a falling out that is interrupted by two mischievously spooky goblins who show Toby the potential future ramifications of his misdeeds. If there’s a parallel to A Christmas Carol, it’s because the original short story was written by Charles Dickens, a year after his classic holiday tale, and was part of a series of his “Christmas books” that featured strong moral and social warnings governing how people’s behavior could lead to eventual misfortune.
The start of The Chimes waxes poetically about the times in which the story is set, but once the plot reveals itself and the conflict of the characters appears, the play really gets going. Richard Large is dismissively stubborn and grippingly vulnerable in his reprisal of Toby Veck, a role he originated in the 2010 debut production of this same story. The goblins, played with charming zest and melodic gusto by Christopher Wallinger and Lamont Webb, derive a hint of menacing fear, but also righteous morals, in trying to convey to Toby just how he has erred. Hope Lauren and Tessie Barresi portray sympathetic and emotional iterations of Meg, who must deal with the challenges of staying with a partner and lover without her father’s blessing. And Daniel Dorr injects a spiraling desperation into Richard, who struggles between the forces of being a male breadwinner and maintaining his ideological philosophies in a rapidly industrializing world.
Unlike Thoth’s Labyrinth and The Damned Thing from last year’s Wicked Lit, The Chimes is largely static in its audience movement, taking place entirely within a chapel space, with guests moving from a cloistered area to the pews. In that sense, it is more similar to The Open Door from last year’s production. The stage is both in front of and behind audience members, but the sequence of events is largely confined to a single interior. Fortunately, this is balanced by some great visual effects that highlight the supernatural and visionary aspects of the play. The tight control and choreography add a fantastical sense to the story, and by culmination of the happy ending, viewers certainly feel like they have been transported through the various timelines with the characters themselves.
Intermission takes place in the grand hall of the mausoleum. A benefit of this year’s arrangement is that photography is allowed in mausoleum space outside of the actual performances, so guests can photograph the stunning spaces of the Cecil E. Bryan-designed “crown jewel” of mausoleums (provided that the names of the dead are not visible). Last year, it was much more difficult to enjoy the details of the spectacular interiors while we were running around the darkened corridors of the mausoleum during the Thoth’s Labyrinth portion of our experience. While seeing this space more lit up certainly takes away some of the mystery from the ambiance, it replaces that wonder with intricate grandeur.
After our five minute break, however, it’s on to Teig O’Kane and the Corpse. We head upstairs and file past the burial tomb of Cecil E. Bryan himself before proceeding down a hallway, where the second fable begins.
Teig O’Kane is a brazen, young Irishman mourning the death of his dear, late mother and unable or unwilling to move on with his life, despite the support and care of his lover, Mary. But when he is lured into a crypt in the local town mausoleum, he encounters a reanimated corpse who has closure issues of his own, and the two embark on a literal hand-in-hand adventure of the ghoulish to bring about restful solution to their mutually bound predicament.
Of the two stories told at this year’s Wicked Lit, The Corpse carries a more dynamic and cinematic feel to it. Not only does the audience move along with the actors across several settings, the morbid environment and ghastly supporting characters provide a progression of plot that is not unlike a fairytale adventure—only this one has more zombie overtones.
But there is heart and humor in this tale. Kevin Dulude’s Corpse is a compelling, emotional, sympathy-inducing victim of circumstances beyond his control, brought back to life because he cannot bear the baggage of his unresolved issues and relationships before his untimely death. He is a fitting foil for Flynn Platt’s selfish, sulking, “spazzy” Teig, whose outlook is transformed over the course of the plot. The chemistry and physical gags between the two induce emotional resonance and comedic relief, contrasting the rather grim premise of the overall story.
Side characters also make their presence memorable. Briddgette Campbell injects her Widow character with a deliberate, exaggerated physical comedy during her brief interlude as a sort of side villain (I’m reminded of the function of Tamatoa from Moana, though The Corpse is obviously much less tropical). She is terrifying as a faceless banshee representing a pervading force beyond life or death.
The Corpse also expands greatly on its original source material by layering a backstory and a personality to its dead, titular co-star, giving audiences reason to care and commiserate with his distress. Teig, also, is presented as a flawed individual who must learn a painful and important lesson (albeit in a most horrifically yet darkly humorously gruesome manner) in order to mature. Both are tied together by their inability to let go of life in the face of death—figuratively and physically—and their self-inflicted inability to progress on. And ultimately, The Corpse reveals a unique and poignant truth about one’s legacy and memory—even as it may be worn away by the passage of time.
Despite its reduced time and stories, Wicked Lit once again delivers a masterpiece of immersive theater. The stories are riveting and compelling, and the portrayals by the actors—some new to Wicked Lit and some returning from different roles in previous seasons—really draw audience members into a different world and history. The mausoleum setting provides a wonderfully ghostly ambiance in which to enjoy such ominous tales.
We certainly miss the in-between stories that segments like last year’s “Liliom” provided, but understand that the needs of the Mountain View property this autumn precluded an expanse as great as previous falls. Ultimately, our only real criticisms stem from selfish greed. We simply want more Wicked Lit. The production is just that good, and this is certainly one of our recommended must-see’s of the haunting season!
Wicked Lit runs through Saturday, November 10th. Tickets are available from its web site, but book yours quickly. Unbound Productions has sold out every ticket of every performance of Wicked Lit since 2013. There may be double the slots available this year, but at the lower price, I would be surprised if that sellout trend did not continue!
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