A delightful evening of Gothic-style theater, "Wicked Lit" delivers a heaping helping of Halloween-season enjoyment in Unbound Productions' fourth annual edition of short plays anthologies.
This prodigiously talented company, which earlier this year offered a likewise impressive evening called "History Lit," presents three ambitious world-premiere adaptations of short stories in a macabre vein, but with an eloquent classical feel.
Three playlets are cleverly staged at a most apt venue, on the burial grounds and in various rooms, nooks and crannies at the Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery in Altadena. Following a day of treacherous thundershowers that played havoc with the company's final tech rehearsals, the valiant producers honored the show-must-go-on tradition, offering a crowd-pleasing opening-night evening of chills, thrills, laughs and impressive special effects on a fortunately dry autumn evening under the stars.
The experience starts the moment patrons arrive, but the producers ask that the surprises before the show and between the one-acts not be revealed. Only a goblin or a curmudgeon would fail to honor that request, particularly in an environment suggesting evil retribution for violations of trust, and only a few weeks before the witching night, mind you.
This project seems in the tradition of such prior projects as Tamara, the long-running environmental drama that ran in L.A., New York, and Toronto in the late 1980s. That memorable theatrical happening wrapped an intriguing costume whodunit within the ambiance of massive old buildings, in which the audience moved from room to room to watch the story unfold, "Wicked Lit" divides the audience into three groups, identified by color-coded programs. Each group views separate playlets, guided by actors who direct us from one location to the next, between the scenes.
Each group observes intermissions between the offerings while waiting to be summoned for the next play. Couch potatoes beware. "Wicked Lit" provides one way for those who worry they aren't getting enough exercise to do a fair amount of waking and climbing stairs while partaking in an evening of entertainment.
Past presentations have adapted works written by literary masters such as H.P. Lovecraft, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe. This year's group of scribes might be less familiar than these, but the tales are engaging and delightfully spooky, bolstered by the efforts of the adapting writers, as well as the directors, designers, and terrific ensemble casts.
In "Count Manus," adapted by Jonathan Josephson from M. R. James' story, set in 19th century Sweden, a 19th-cenury British writer, Mr. Wraxal (a superb Brandon Massey) visits Vestergothland (a city with a most apt name), where the inquisitive scribe becomes fascinated by accounts of a crazed and tyrannical nobleman, now deceased.
Wraxel smells a juicy story and strives to uncover the truth about this legendary reign of terror, which soon leads him down a treacherous path. Richard Large excels as the seemingly possessed deacon, Count Magnus. Ditto William Joseph Hill is his creepy assistant, Stewart. The tension steadily builds in this nerve-racking yarn, under the sharp direction of Paul Millet. Jay Lee's atmospheric projected video segment is a big plus.
"Wake Not the Dead," a bloodcurdling vampire story, is adapted by Millet from Johann Ludwig Tieck's scary 18th-century tale, under the taut direction of Douglas Clayton, In Central Europe, Walter (Michael Perl) tries to unravel circumstances involving a plague that has stricken his first love, Brunhilda (Susannah Myrvold). He must enlist the help of his wife Sister Swanhilda (Katie Pelensky), while a frightening alchemist (the sublime Chairman Barnes) stirs up the pot. The terror rises to a fever pitch. Performances are first-rate.
The flavorful ambiance of Ireland in 1909 is evident in "The Dead Smile," adapter-director Jeff G. Rack's take on F. Marion Crawford's story. This nail-biting tale of a family curse follows the plight of Gabriel (Eric Keitel), who is in love with Evelyn (Melissa Lugo), and determined to make her his bride.
He's opposed by his despicable ailing father (a deliciously malevolent Michael Prichard) and the beleaguered family nurse (Roses Prichard), who harbor fears that they dare not reveal. The suspense builds to a horrifying climax in this gripping piece, highlighted by splendid performances and riveting special effects.
The contributions of makeup artist Julie Pound, lighting designer Ellen Monocroussos, costume designer Christine Cover Ferro, sound designer Drew Dalzell, and Rack (art direction/EFX) greatly contribute to the success of this endeavor. This enthralling production elicits goose bumps and shivers mixed with class-a Halloween attraction that's a treat for all seasons.
"Wicked Lit" runs through November 10 at the Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery, 2300 Marengo Ave, Altadena. For info or tickets, call 818-242-7910 or visit wickedlit.org.