Staging a horror play in a darkened mausoleum and among the headstones of a historic cemetery is an inspired idea, and this sixth production of Wicked Lit at Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery in Altadena utilized the facility to maximum effect with enhanced lighting and effects. The audience is treated to three plays and a “frame” adapted from short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Edith Nesbit and Ryünosuke Akutagawa. Created by Unbound Productions, the set of plays runs Thursdays through Sundays through Nov. 14, 2015.
Sets are various locations in the mausoleum and cemetery, which are incorporated into the stories, sometimes as an additional character. This is especially true in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” starring Carlos Larkin as the deranged Roderick Usher, Devon Michaels as his concerned friend Nathaniel Dawson, and Tanya Mironowski as Madeline Usher. The adaptation of the Poe story by Paul Millet adds a creepy twist: The mansion was built to accommodate the crypts of the Usher family, and there they are, lining the walls of every room. It’s truly immersive theater.
The writing crescendos from mere apprehension to deep distress. Billowing curtains and eerie lighting in and out create the feeling of unseen evil lurking in the very marble, but the true horror comes from the increasingly evident madness of Roderick and Nathaniel’s gradual and terrifying realization of something very, very wrong in the house. It is finely acted with direction by Jeff G. Rack, and the performances stick with the viewer long after the audience has moved to the next play.
“The Ebony Frame,” adapted by Susannah Myrvold from the Nesbit story and directed by Jaimie Robledo, incorporates humor with the horror, or perhaps vice-versa. Joe Fria plays the self-centered cad Henry with a rather charming boorishness. Looking over the house he just inherited from his aunt, Henry discovers a portrait of a mysterious, unknown, yet somehow familiar woman from centuries earlier. This means unceremoniously dropping his fiancé Mildred, delightfully acted by Angie Hobin. Deborah Dominguez bringing beauty and distress to the part, is the woman in the portrait. What happens? Ah, that would be spoilers, but it includes fire and blood. Of course.
While adapting “The Grove of Rashomon from the Akutagawa story “In a Grove,” Jonathan Josephson discovered that the movie Rashomon owed a lot to this Japanese tale, which in turn was based on a 12th-century legend. Though there are plenty of spirits, each telling the story of a terrible crime for their own viewpoint, the chills come from the unrelenting, soul-deep grief of a mother seeking to find what has happened to her missing daughter. The tale wends through the cemetery from tombstones to pathways to the grove where Masago, played by Alpha Takahashi, was last seen.
This is not a story that the audience can walk away from with the assurance that such things never really happen. Searching for the truth and finding only self-serving deceit, Chiyoko’s anguish and love for her daughter are very real in a heart-rending performance by Sachio K. The cast is large, with each of the spirits having a masked counterpart acting out the words he or she tells Chiyoko. Darin Anthony did a fine job of directing the actors and capturing the Japanese flavor.
The audience is divided into three groups, and each play has a story guide that leads the group through the experience. Michael Prichard plays the silent, bedraggled guide to “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Tina Van Berckelaer is the tart-mouthed maid Jane in “The Ebony Frame,” and Robert Paterno is Isamu, obedient and a bit frightened. Credit must also be given to the family-owned Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum for making the property available. It has been owned and run by the historic Giddings family since its founding in 1883.
Like pictures in a triptych, the dramas are framed by another Poe story, “The System,” conceived and directed by Debbie McMahon. It’s based on “The System of Doctor Tarr & Professor Fether,” and has plenty of humor to lighten the mood, beginning with an exploration of a tent containing artifacts from the asylum founded by Dr. Maillard. A black-and-white vintage film plays—or is it vintage? Perhaps; it was filmed at Mountain View which was founded itself in 1883. As with any tale about such an institution, the question is who is running the asylum?
Alan Abelew plays a sweet, personable, frazzled, and nutty Maillard in something like a conflation of Doc Brown and The First Doctor. His assistant, Nurse Racher (pronounced ra-shay) manages to be frightening and funny at the same time. Kevin Dulude plays the matron, as well as Satan in “The Ebony Frame.” The hook is that two gentlemen (Kyle Fox and Mark Ostrander) drop in to investigate The System, and the story guides are either inmates or employees. It’s hard to tell one from the other.
Tickets are available through the Unbound Productions website. Performances start promptly at 7:30 p.m. with a preshow at 7:15 p.m. Even on warm days, the air can be chilly and damp after sunset, so attendees should bring a jacket, and since there is a lot of walking over uneven ground, comfortable, close-toed shoes are suggested.