It’s the 10th annual Wicked Lit program at Mountain View Mausoleum in Altadena, and change isn’t just in the air — it has arrived. For this Halloween season, the crew at Unbound Productions have assembled a leaner (but not meaner) version of the beloved local anthology theater performance: Two stories instead of one (and thus a shorter running time with no intermissions), no fully connective material in between (but a mildly interactive museum with chipper guides) and no outdoor time, smaller audience sizes with more well-lit parts of the location, two seatings (7:30 and 9:00 p.m.) with reduced ticket prices compared to previous years, and many new faces in the acting troupe. It’s hard not to feel a little anxious with this much change all at once, especially in an anniversary year: Previous runs of Wicked Lit were grand affairs that rightly won over the hearts of a lot of creepy theater fans. In the face of the shock of the new, is Wicked Lit still putting on great shows? Or has it lost something?
The first play we saw (since the audience is divided into two groups, as usual, you could see either story first) was “The Chimes: A Goblin Story,” adapted by Jonathan Josephson from the 1844 novella by Charles Dickens. Dickens’ original text is a sort of off-brand “Christmas Carol” for the New Year holiday, with a misguided man visited by the Goblins of the Church Bells rather than the Ghosts of three Christmases and learning his lesson by the supernatural teachings they forcibly visit on him. It’s not hard to see the Halloween connection here if you think of the fact that Halloween was the new year’s observance in the old Celtic world, but to the modern audience, the connection is a bit more tenuous.
Be that as it may, Josephson’s adaptation plays to the creepy side of the tale, condensing the nearly 200 pages of the novella into a taut one-act that begins with main character Toby Veck (Richard Large, a Wicked Lit veteran who commands the space with authority yet shares it nicely with co-stars Hope Lauren (who embodies daughter Meg’s despair quite well) and Daniel Dorr (who does a fine job with son-in-law Richard Wells’ descent into darkness). It takes a performer like Large to work with the wild Goblins (Christopher Wallinger and Lamont Webb) without being upstaged. (The Goblins are given elements of the Celtic pooka legend for this play; in the novella, they’re much closer to being shapeless, faceless ghost-voices. Here, they have a touch of Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to them, and even a bit of the Celtic idea of the kelpie or “water horse.” It’s a welcome set of choices, as otherwise the actors wouldn’t have enough to work with from the original source material.)
While the story is eerie and supernatural, it’s focused (like “A Christmas Carol”) on redemption. Toby knows life but doesn’t understand it, and when his daughter Meg wants to marry Richard (a young philosopher), Toby demands she either give up such a foolish dream or that Richard goes to work on the docks. After a shattering argument with the young people, Toby ends up in the chapel with the Goblins of the Chimes, who show him how a life of bitter drudgery and crushed dreams will destroy Richard, Meg and more besides. The result is a play that (like its source material) is direct but didactic, angry at “pragmatism” and “the way we’ve always done things” — and oddly, that is both good and bad for Halloween storytelling.
It’s good, because visits from goblins and foretelling the future are well-loved parts of the holiday. But it’s a little bad, too, because part of what makes “A Christmas Carol” work is that even the most literate versions of the story end with the very over-the-top (and cathartic) redemption of Ebeneezer Scrooge. The redemption of Toby Veck is happy and all, but it’s also fairly understated and more like a legitimate drama than the charming Christmas pageant melodrama of “Carol.” You could certainly imagine Webb and Wallinger’s Chime Goblins hanging out with the three Christmas Ghosts and comparing notes, but the whole story as performed really partakes of gloom, despair and quieter lessons learned. This makes it both uplifting and downbeat even at its finale, and there’s more to applaud than to cheer, if that makes sense. The crowd is edified and given some thrills, but buttons have not been pushed the way Dickens — the Steven Spielberg of his time — would have pushed them. Even so, it’s an instructive tale that shows people the need for hope and the freedom to chase dreams even if it’s not “practical,” and that does put it on the light side compared to genuine horror stories.
But it is a good one-act and the actors and production values are as solid as the script. The sound design is well done for both parts of this year’s Wicked Lit, too. One nagging flaw with “The Chimes” is at a crucial point in the staging: For much of the piece, the audience must do some fairly physical twisting and turning in their seats to follow the action. It’s hard to say if this could have been avoided, but it’s definitely something that could give you the proverbial crick in your neck if you’re not careful.
The second half of the program (again, only for this reviewer, it could be the other way around for you) is “Teig O’Kane and the Corpse,” adapted by Kerry Kazmierowicztrimm from a short story by Ernest Rhys (in a translation by Dr. Douglas Hyde). This one is really a fairy tale, possibly even a mythic underworld (of the dead) story of centuries long past, about a particularly rotten young man (of the sort they used to call a “rake”) named Teig O’Kane (played with understated realism by Flynn Platt). Teig has made young Mary (Kelly Pierre) pregnant and though he protests that he loves her, he breaks things off and abandons her. (In the story, we hear of this from Teig’s father’s disapproving speech; in the play, we see the moment ourselves.)
Teig storms out into the dark, sinister night and wends his way to a cemetery where he encounters the restless spirits of the dead — beginning with The Corpse, a newly dead murder victim (played to perfection by the great Kevin Dulude, a recurring member of Wicked Lit who never fails to delight audiences) that becomes magically stuck to Teig. Locked together by this weird predicament, Teig and The Corpse go on a freakish odyssey through the world of the dead (and the graveyard) where they meet predatory female ghosts (Tina Van Berckelaer and Bridgette Campbell, as The Banshee and The Widow, respectively, both lively and entertaining) in the quest to find the perfect tomb for The Corpse. The journey into darkness helps Teig learn about responsibility, empathy and maturity — but will it be in time?
The unifying theme of unworthy men with bad, traditional ideas meeting the supernatural and getting a chance to grow and improve is a good one, though it’s not really the usual Halloween fare. There are a couple of chills and some minor jumps, but this year’s Wicked Lit is more about stepping into a supernatural Otherworld and seeing something both fun and instructive than it is about scaring anybody in the audience. It’s part of an ongoing trend with Wicked Lit of moving toward a brighter, more fantasy-like style — more TWILIGHT ZONE than NIGHT GALLERY, if you will.
It’s not unwelcome, but it’s worth knowing about if you come to the show expecting something inherently frightful and nihilistic. (Maybe everybody’s had enough nihilism from other parts of life these days…)
Overall, Wicked Lit 2018 is enjoyable and smart and makes great use of its historic location. (There’s no other theater experience quite like being in a beautiful century-old mausoleum at night.) Any time things are streamlined in a lavish production, you worry about how things are going for the company that stages the shows, and this is no exception. But here’s hoping that it’s just a change of pace, and that we have many years of Wicked Lit ahead of us.
Go see Wicked Lit at the Mountain View Mausoleum now through November 10, with shows at 7:30 and 9:00 p.m., and keep an eye open for goblins and ghosts — ’tis the season…
Flynn Platt and Kevin Dulude in “Teig O’Kane and the Corpse.”