Theatre in Historic Places: No Rest for the Wicked in WICKED LIT at Mountain View Mausoleum
Theatre in Historic Places is a special series by Los Angeles Senior Editor Ellen Dostal featuring theatre, music, and other arts performances in historic venues around Southern California.
Thousands of souls have their final resting place in Altadena's Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery but, once a year in the fall, the living invade the domain of the dead. That's when Unbound Productions' WICKED LIT takes over the grounds and creates a site-specific theatrical experience based on classic and original horror stories. It is unlike any other kind of theatre or Halloween event you've ever seen, impressive both in its artistry and in its creativity. Go once and you're hooked. Go twice and you'll be a WickLit-er for life.
This year, the stories represent three "Moments of Misery" in which the dead are forced to relive their pain while we witness it. Each is enacted in a different part of the grounds and all of them are connected by a fourth story that takes place in the holding area between plays. The audience is divided into smaller groups and you'll see all three plays by the end of the night, but not necessarily in the same order.
The first, THOTH'S LABYRINTH, was written by Wicked Lit co-founder Jonathan Josephson, specifically with the mausoleum in mind, and is loosely based on the Egyptian legend, The Book of Thoth. Set in 1972 Altadena, it turns the mausoleum's darkened hallways into a labyrinth resembling the tunnels of Egypt as its characters search for a legendary book said to give them the power of the gods. The key is finding six amulets that must all be placed on the sarcophagus at the same time. Thus begins a breathless journey to uncover the book's secrets reminiscent of the old black and white adventure films of the 1950s.
Darin Anthony directs the piece at a pace that increases in urgency as each discovery is made. Lit mainly by the actors' flashlights, and some well-placed smoke and murky accent lighting, it is the first time the mausoleum has been used in this particular way and it is incredibly exciting. It starts on the back side of the structure where the audience gets the set-up from a peculiar Antony Woodbury (Kevin Dulude) and then divides into three smaller groups of 10 to 12 people depending upon which of three amulets they choose.
As each group veers off in a different direction, the play takes on the feel of an expedition in the middle of the desert. The parties intersect at times and will come together for the big finish but the best part of this adventure is how it winds through the recesses of the mausoleum. Speaking only from my experience of the iron amulet route, it was an exhilarating trip. Joe Camareno as Dr. Mataha makes this treasure hunt particularly credible.
Next is a departure to the supernatural realm for Kirsten Brandt's adaptation of THE OPEN DOOR, based on a short story by Margaret Oliphant. In it, a soldier returns from the war to find that his young son has fallen ill. Rumors of possession hang in the air and there are strange reports concerning the nearby ruins, but no one is prepared for what happens in this story.
Staged by Wicked Lit co-founder Paul Millet using multiple levels of the mausoleum's outdoor Pompeian Court, this Victorian ghost story is downright spooky. It unfolds vividly and quite eerily in the cool night air. I mean, come on...it's a ghost story...with a kid, and a great kid at that. Sweet-faced Bradley Bundlie as young Roland Mortimer is chilling in the role and the tension between his parents (Jenna Hunt and Michael Perl) propels this story forward into unexpected territory. The servants' (Hunt and John Patrick Daly) thick Scottish brogues could use a little toning down to make it easier to understand them but their commitment to authenticity is admirable.
Millet chooses audience vantage points at unusual angles that serve the story well. One of the best is watching the action from the concrete walkway above as the characters move through the garden area below. Lighting and special effects for all three plays is more intricate and carries an even bigger impact than in previous productions. The textures and moving parts in this story are particularly stunning.
The third play of the night, THE DAMNED THING, directed by Sebastian Munoz, begins in the chapel and ends in the graveyard. Adapted by Wicked Lit co-founder Jeff G. Rack and based on an 1893 Gothic horror story by Ambrose Bierce, it accomplishes something completely unpredictable; true terror in the cemetery.
A badly burned corpse, a cryptic journal, and enough "how'd they do that" magic in the graveyard will leave you looking over your shoulder even after the play is done. To solve the mystery of how Hugh (Ian Heath) died, his friend Harper (Eric Keitel) will need to piece together a harrowing tale, one that defies the constraints of the physical world and reveals an unspeakable horror. Hold onto your senses because this one has an extended effect in it that seems impossible to orchestrate and is so otherworldly you can't believe they actually pulled it off. Translation: it's really cool.
To connect the plays and allow the main actors to reset for the next group, the audience returns to LILIOM where the dead go to await their fate. Here, four unfortunate souls will tell their sordid tales in the hopes that the gates will open and let them in to a better place. A Mayor minus his hands (Todd Andrew Ball), a woman minus half her face (Tosca Minotto), a soldier with a secret (Alec Gaylord) and a widow with a penchant for deadly pasta (Jennifer Novak Chun) add humor with their colorful portrayals and curious activities.
The casual improvisatory nature of the frame is a perfect contrast to the intensity of the overall Wicked Lit experience. Written by Kerry Kazmierowicztrimm and based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnár, it is directed by James Castle Stevens.
This idea of Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery as Liliom isn't so far-fetched. The site itself has long been a resting place for the dead and who knows how many souls still roam the open spaces waiting for something more.
Mountain View dates back to 1882 when Levi Warren Giddings gave part of his land to the town so it could establish a cemetery. It was always meant to be a memorial park rather than a dusty old church graveyard and it is one of only a few remaining combination cemetery and funeral homes still owned and operated by descendants of its founders. When Kevin Giddings takes over, he will be the sixth generation of the Giddings family to manage the site.
The Mortuary was established in 1959 and the Mausoleum was later purchased and added to the property in 1971. It is one of 80 mausoleums designed by Cecil E. Bryan who is also interred at Mountain View. Early in his career, Bryan worked for Frank Lloyd Wright, and later, Ralph Modjeski, a pioneer who used reinforced concrete in many of his buildings. Originally from the Midwest, one of Bryan's first reinforced concrete mausoleums was Greenwood Mausoleum in Cedar Falls, Iowa built in 1912. The sturdy structures he created were meant to stand the test of time and to provide comfort for the deceased's loved ones. He was laid to rest at Mountain View in 1951.
The fascinating video below takes a deeper look at the pioneering families and famous residents who have come to call Mountain View home.
One wonders if he and the other residents don't come along for the ride when Wicked Lit begins to tell a new tale in their backyard. They've certainly got the best seats in the house. For the living, Wicked Lit offers an unforgettable chance to experience decadent entertainment in a drop-dead surreal setting. This year is their best yet.
Sept. 29 - Nov. 11, 2017
Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery
2300 N. Marengo Ave., Altadena, CA 91001
Free parking on the grounds
Tickets: 323-332-2065 or www.wickedlit.org
Recommended for audiences ages 16+
Running time is approximately 3 hours including two intervals.
Production photos by Daniel Kitayama
It Takes a (mysical) Village:
Lighting Designers: Darrell Clark and Hilda Kane
Sound Designers: Drew Dalzell and Noell Hoffman
Resident Costume Designer: Christine Cover Ferro
Costume Design and Wardrobe Mistress: Robin Lynn
Puppetry Design and Creation: Joe Seely
Props: McKenzie R. Eckels
Production Builder: Kurtis Bedford
Set and EFX: Jeff G. Rack
Wigs and Makeup: Judi Lewin and Julie Pound
Master Electrician: David Patrick
Sound Master: Colin Postley
Front of House: Susy Vera and Emily Abbott
Producers: Jonathan Josephson, Paul Millet, and Jeff G. Rack