The 2014 staging of Unbound Productions’ “Wicked Lit” (now through November 8) at Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery is one of the Halloween season’s most spectacular theatrical shows. As with previous years, it’s really three shows in one—four, actually, given that the lighthearted wrap-around story (“The Spirits of Walpurgisnacht”) isn’t just connecting filler but actually has characters, an arc and a satisfying conclusion. And as with the previous five years, the limited-sized audience is divided into three color-coded groups that determine the order in which they see the three one-act stories that make up the show. (So even though this review is based on seeing these stories in a given order, your mileage and frights may vary.)
As anyone familiar with the show knows, the location itself is one of the stars. Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery is an historic site more than a century old and filled with real architectural beauty.
But the play’s the thing, of course…
To begin with, you’re ushered into late 19th century Germany and the open-air laboratory of Franz Mesmer (Dustin Hess), mad scientist extraordinaire, and his wife and loyal crew of Gypsy assistants. Never mind that the real Franz Mesmer never saw an electric lightbulb in his life and looked more like George Washington than Willy Wonka, this Mesmer and his company are archly funny and very polished steampunk magicians whose antics lighten up the evening between creepy tales of the macabre. (Kyle Fox is a particular standout as Marko, Mesmer’s assistant—his extraordinary improv and line delivery make it look like comedy is easy, and we all know better…) Kudos to co-directors Aurora Long and Charlie Mount for creating such a strong frame for the art placed within it.
“Dracula’s Guest” is adapted from Bram Stoker’s late Victorian short story by playwright John Leslie and directed by Jeff G. Rack. Set in 1890s Transylvania, it tells the tale of how arrogant English real estate attorney Jonathan Harker (Eric Keitel) runs roughshod over the locals in his frantic effort to reach Castle Dracula and his fateful visit to its master, the Count. Based on the most famous and accessible material in the program, “Dracula’s Guest” has a good deal of expectation to live up to, and it mostly does so. Keitel’s Harker is well played, with a serviceable English accent to match the Teutonic and Slavic tones of the rest of the cast. Richard Large, John T. Cogan and William Joseph Hill round out the personalities in the fearful village inn where Harker is lodging at the beginning of the play, and they make much of roles that could easily be cardboard. (Cogan is nicely poised in the story as the character who should be the hero, rather than Harker… but there’s a price to pay for that status.) McKenzie Eckels’ Countess Dolingen and Angie Hobin’s Daciana are quite over the top, but by the time they enter the plot, it’s only right—when you’re sitting in the menacing shadows of a hundred-year-old real cemetery by the light of the moon, it’s appropriate for sinister forces to be embodied a bit more literally. In any case, it’s a fun story that’s told in broad, entertaining strokes.
“The Monk” is adapted from Matthew Gregory Lewis’ 18th century novella by playwright Douglas R. Clayton and directed by Debbie McMahon. An early Gothic melodrama set in Italy, late in the Age of Enlightenment, it pits the desperation and ambition of an impoverished young noblewoman (Matilda Dalfa, played by Ember Knight) against the piety and devotion of a celebrated monk, Brother Ambrosio (Eric Harris). Even as she is courted by handsome young Lorenzo (Michael Perl) and chastised by the stern Sister (Wendy Worthington), diabolical forces entice her into a bargain that will destroy everyone. Knight and Perl give solid performances, and Harris is both authoritative and heart-wrenching, but it’s Worthington’s acidic nun that really carries the show. That and playwright Clayton’s heroic work in reducing the source material to something manageable and enjoyable—Lewis’ overdone bodice-ripper is absurd to the modern reader, choked with dozens of characters and festooned with now-cliché “creepy castle” elements to a nearly unreadable degree. This may be the best and most streamlined telling of “The Monk” you’ll ever have a chance to see, so if that matters to you, hie thee hence to “Wicked Lit” before it’s over. (For that and more, of course.)
“Las Lloronas” (the plural is intentional) is an original piece by Jonathan Josephson that draws upon traditional folklore and real-world events, and is directed by Paul Millet. Here you’re ushered into the darkest depths of both history and the human soul, as El Diablo (magnificently embodied by Joe Camareno) narrates the recurring legend of “La Llorona”—the “weeping woman”—and how she links up the historical figure of “La Malinche,” the many bogeyman tales of the ghostly woman who cries and screams for her drowned children, and actual modern crimes. Although it was disappointing that no linkage was made clear with the even older tales of Medea and her children in ancient Greece, the story is compelling enough that no one can complain about that in earnest. Although the men in the story other than Camareno (Angel Duran and Sonny James Lira) are also good performers, the greatest share of the credit for its acting success rightfully aligns with its actresses—each of whom is, in her own way, “La Llorona.” More moving than frightful, great depth was offered up in the performances of Bianca Gisselle, Anna Gabrielle Gonzalez, Melissa Perl and Pia Faye Thomas—their ensemble work seemed especially fitting, melancholy and respectful in the halls of the dead.
There are other interactive theater shows and other dark literary shows, but there’s nothing quite like Wicked Lit. Make your Halloween season really memorable and try and catch a performance—they’re rapidly approaching being completely sold out.