Wicked Lit 2015: Topping the Un-Toppable

Devon Michaels and Carlos Larkin in "The Fall of the House of Usher." Photo by Daniel Kitayama.

Devon Michaels and Carlos Larkin in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Photo by Daniel Kitayama.

So this is not your reviewer’s first experience at Wicked Lit in mysterious Altadena, California, but it may just be the best—and that’s saying quite a lot. Previous years have been real delights, with surprises such as a howlingly funny wraparound story involving Franz Mesmer and a truly harrowing telling of the legend of La Llorona. But this year… especially if you join the Yellow Sticker Group (as I call it)… you get an incredible build-up of chills and drama that ends about as immersively as it can, without a stagehand dropping a marble column on your head as you exit.

As you’ve guessed, I saw Wicked Lit 2015 in the Yellow Sticker Group, and if there’s more Halloween horror drama magic to be had anywhere in Southern California, you’ll just have to tell me about it so I can catch up…

Tanya Mironowski in "The Fall of the House of Usher." Photo by Daniel Kitayama.

Tanya Mironowski in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Photo by Daniel Kitayama.

The whole thing takes place at a beautiful century-old mausoleum, full of stained glass, marble, wrought iron and generations of memories… as well as the marvelous, equally old cemetery adjacent, replete with classic standing tombstones and lovely old trees. You’d be glad just to be there, if you’re the right kind of person, but to have tales of ghosts, witchcraft, madness and death play out before you—that makes the ticket worth twice the price.

This year’s framing story is “The System,” based on Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” Ably directed by Debbie McMahon, this semi-interactive portion of the evening (really, all of Wicked Lit—and Unbound Productions—work is semi-interactive, as you are plunged into the midst of the ghoulish drama unfolding) brings the audience together with Alan Abelew’s freakish Doctor Maillard and reliable favorite Kyle Fox’s Henri. It seems an asylum for the criminally insane must be inspected by outside observers, but there’s a little bit more going on than is immediately obvious. Like previous years’ framing stories, this one is more for fun and black humor than for creeps, but it still has a few eerie moments along with the laughs.

After meeting the staff of the asylum, we were quickly ushered over to watch “The Ebony Frame,” adapted from a story by Edith Nesbit. Jaime Robledo’s directing is solid and the genteel air of menace from the original story (of ghostly love and selling one’s soul) grows quickly, with strong showings by Angie Hobin and Joe Fria, as well as the entire cast. The story is a perfect introduction to the evening, low-key enough to give a build to the next narrative but with enough “oomph” that you’d be glad just to see this one by itself. (Plus it’s got yet another appearance by Satan, “that prowde spirit,” who seems to cameo in at least one Wicked Lit story every year—and each time it’s a completely different actor to play him/her!)

Following another delightful interlude at the madhouse, we were brought over to “The Grove of Rashomon” to watch Jonathan Josephson’s adaptation (of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short story) as directed by Darin Anthony. The story is a meditation on truth—when a samurai is killed and his wife raped, what really happened? Everyone has a different version to tell—including the dead. Lyrical, haunting and with powerful currents of tragedy, the story has a crackerjack cast but Alpha Takahashi dominates the scene as Masago. Her performance has every facet and nuance you could ask in a production that must inevitably be compared to Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece. But while the narrative carries out all the high art elements we might expect of such a serious adaptation, the performers and director still make time to keep the creepy parts as chilling as possible.

Returning from the penultimate visit to the sanitarium, the audience goes to see Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which is this year’s real show-stopper. On top of wonderful performances by Devon Michaels, Tanya Mironowski and Carlos Larkin (among others), Jeff G. Rack’s production (of Paul Millet’s adaptation) builds chill upon chill until you get to live the famous climax of Poe’s macabre tale of insanity, corruption and decay. The only way it could get more real would be to actually stand in a crumbling edifice in its final moments, so it’s quite a sendoff!

But there’s still one last farewell, and it’s back at Doctor Maillard’s institute. The audience gets a very satisfying close to the evening, and if they’re anything like this critic, they’re ready for more from Unbound Productions and next year’s Wicked Lit. However, this year’s Wicked Lit is still running—and you should catch it. Get thee hence to Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery on Thursday-Sunday until November 14. And say hi to Doctor Maillard and the gang at the asylum…