There’s something particularly dreamlike about being on cemetery grounds at night. The gates are usually closed to visitors during that time, and since early childhood, all of us have seen moonlit cemeteries as the setting for nightmarish tales.
So taking a friend to Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery many hours after sundown, after I had told him we were driving to Altadena that night to see a play…might have seemed shady to the casual observer. But we did see a play that night. In fact, we saw two.
Unbound Productions, a nonprofit theater company, has been hosting Wicked Lit at Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery for six of its seven running years (the first year was hosted in a Beverly Hills mansion). Wicked Lit creates and performs theatrical adaptations of classic horror literature. Unbound also hosts History Lit and Mystery Lit, with plays that focus on literature that reflects each respective genre, at a variety of museums and theater venues in the Los Angeles area.
Wicked Lit has run every October since Unbound was founded seven years ago, and their cemetery performances began during their second year. The nonprofit will return this October with play adaptations of “The Grove of Rashaman,” “The Ebony Frame” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” But if you’d like to experience Wicked Lit earlier, they’ll be performing staged readings of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Unnamable” at The Huntington tomorrow night.
It’s not uncommon for Wicked Lit to perform additional shows outside of Halloween season. This past July marked the fourth year in a row that Wicked Lit has hosted a summer installation. This year’s featured an adaptation of W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” and a staged reading of Lovecraft’s “From Beyond,” both of them performed inside the mausoleum. During last fall’s production, I sat with my back to the graves lining the mausoleum wall to watch a retelling of the La Llorona legend, then was led into the foggy cemetery to witness vampire women stalking their victims in an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest.” This summer’s performance was slightly smaller in scale, using less of the cemetery and mausoleum grounds than their full-blown October productions. But “Wicked Lit” has no shortage of great actors and eerie lighting to make their storytelling feel intimate and unreal.
“The Monkey’s Paw” isolates us in the home of a working-class family that jumps at the opportunity to magically improve their lives. The real beauty of the production is in the details. Every time the family’s cabin door opens, visitors stand framed in the thick rural England fog, none of them ever truly there to provide our protagonists with the good news they’re so longing to hear. When the family’s wishes, all made to a mystical, mummified monkey’s paw, go tragically awry, the distorted silhouette of their undead son creeping past the window is unsettling and surreal. True to the original story, we never clearly see him, we never get a good look at what lies just outside the cabin door, but the idea of him, the tease that we do see, is more than enough to haunt us.
Even the staged reading of “From Beyond” incorporated memorable visuals. Nauseating light bounces across the walls of the mausoleum’s chapel while the actors (who knew their lines so well they had little need for the scripts in their hands) reacted to the sights of a horrific alternate dimension. The plays aren’t often interactive (although, at times, a character may address you directly), but they are immersive in the mausoleum setting.
These are well-produced, strongly performed productions in their own right. The added effect of the surrounding mausoleum only contributes to ominous atmosphere. But at the same time, there’s also an element of classiness to Wicked Lit. It’s literature; it’s theater. There are no gore fests here, no jump scares, no maniacs chasing guests through the halls with chainsaws (although, admittedly, in other circumstances there’s nothing wrong with that either).
Although part of the haunt community and appreciative of what other Halloween season attractions have to offer, executive director Jonathan Josephson said that Wicked Lit is going for a different approach. He said they’re careful not to make their performances in the mausoleum too campy.
“For the audience, we know that it’s a signature draw,” Josephson said. “It’s like, you’re doing anything in a mausoleum or a cemetery at night? People want to go. But for us, the setting is actually really important to the play. We’re staging these plays because that is where the stories take place. The easy way to sell is to do something weird. We want to do something artful and dark and dramatic and creative and interesting that just works on our level.”
He admitted, however, that some actors are “weirded out” about performing there and that some family members of the cast and crew are too creeped out by the venue to go to the shows. Maybe it’s something about the way those headstones look dark and shadowy in the light of the distant streetlamps. Maybe it’s the thought that so many dark mysteries of the human psyche have been explored but unanswered even since the days of Poe or Lovecraft. Whatever the case, it makes for a memorable night at the theater—er, mausoleum.
There will be a staged reading tomorrow night, August 22nd, at The Huntington that will showcase Hawthorne’s classic tale of Puritan hypocrisy in the time of the Salem witch trials and Lovecraft’s take on a haunting, ghost-like entity. Josephson said Wicked Lit’s staged readings tend to be “enhanced” readings, not so different from fully-staged productions, and audience members may be led into different rooms to experience scenes in the stories. Literature, theater and horror lovers are all welcome.
For more tickets and more information, visit www.unboundproductions.org.