Wicked Lit. 2012 Theatre Review – A “Wicked” Tour of Tantalizing Terror

Brunhilda (Susannah Myrvold) seduces Sister Swanhilda (Katie Pelensky) in "Wake Not the Dead"

(Altadena, CA) October 2012 – Darkness falls and the gigantic, circular stained glass window from the Mountain View Mausoleum looms over the visitors like an unforgiving, foreboding eye. But the nighttime guests can take comfort; the property is not haunted…perhaps. For the third year in a row, the creative minds of Unbound Productions have featured their Wicked Lit plays at the well-renowned Altadena mausoleum and cemetery. Courtesy of superior acting and direction, Wicked Lit’s successful adaptation of three obscure horror tales has resulted in an extension to their theatre run.

The mission of Unbound Productions is quite simple: to create fresh adaptations of classic literature as a way of reimagining great stories for new audiences. Their mission with regard to Wicked Lit is even simpler: to create and produce stage plays based on classic horror literature. For the past four years, Wicked Lit has featured works by Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and many others. The format of these productions is to perform them theatrically in enhanced settings which fit the theme and tone of the selected plays. The audience is broken into three “tour groups.” These groups are escorted to various locations at the mausoleum and cemetery. After every performance per group, the entire audience returns to the lobby, where small dramatic “vignettes” are presented, serving as the production’s intermission. These intermissions feature a mysterious, mute flower girl (Teena Pugliese), who also entertains the audience members at their arrival. Then, the tour guides rotate the groups, taking them to another adaptation. And this process continues until all three groups see all three shows.

Wraxall (Brandon Massey, left) negotiates with Stewart (William Joseph Hill) in "Count Magnus"

For the 2012 season, Wicked Lit features the works of three obscure horror writers, whose mature themes are perfect for audience members ages 17 and up. With M.R. James’s “Count Magnus,” which takes place in 19th century Sweden, the group is guided by the town gossip (a charming Pamela Hill) to the exterior and interior of the Main Mausoleum, where writer Mr. Wraxall (Brandon Massey) is trying to discover the secrets of the long-deceased, malevolent lord. Will the local deacon (a haunted Richard Large) and his faithful aide (William Joseph Hill) keep their visitor at bay, or will Wraxall encounter the horrors that are mumbled in hushed whispers by the Swedish townspeople?

The next tour is led by two friars, who are hilariously portrayed by Andy Thacher (a frightening resemblance to Jason Alexander) and Todd Andrew Ball (an even more frightening resemblance to a strung-out version of character actor Brad Dourif). They are taken to the mid-18th century European setting of Johann Ludwig Tieck’s “Wake Not the Dead”. The group is guided to a chapel that is adorned with garlic; the smell almost overpowering the protagonist Walter (Michel Perl) and the Sister Swanhilda (Katie Pelensky), who was once Walter’s second wife. A blood plague has swept the town and it is revealed that Walter’s first wife Brunhilda (Susannah Myrvold) is responsible. How she is responsible? How does an ominous alchemist (the scene-stealing Chairman Barnes) play a role in this? The answers to these questions result in Walter and Swanhilda fighting for their immortal souls.

Gabriel (Eric Keitel) proclaims his love to Evelyn (Melissa Lugo) in "The Dead Smile"

The third story guide (the debonair Eric Harris) leads the group to 1909 Ireland, where F. Marion Crawford’s “The Dead Smile” tells of the curse that has plagued the Ockram Clan. Young Gabriel (Eric Keitel) wants to marry his beloved Evelyn (Melissa Lugo). But the diseased patriarch Sir Hugh and his patient nurse (Michael and Roses Prichard) forbid him from doing so for fear of revealing a horrible secret that threatens to destroy the entire clan.

Every actor inhabits their character as though it were a second skin (healthy and decomposing, depending on the character involved). Special mention goes to  Brandon Massey’s Wraxall in “Count Magnus”. Massey not only exudes the persona of a 19th century Englishman in both dialect and demeanor, he also captures the determination, desperation, selfishness and manipulative nature of a typical fallen horror protagonist who is a victim of his own pride. From “The Dead Smile,” Michael Prichard’s Sir Hugh is corruption though and through, and his make-up becomes the extension of his malevolence. Roses Prichard’s Nurse is a heartbreaker regarding what is more important: loyalty to one’s employer or to choose the path of moral integrity. But the most standout performance is Teena Pugliese’s Story Guide, who drifts around, to and fro, the lobby/center staging area, playfully teasing and bonding with the audience as though she were a mischievous spirit having fun with her human counterparts. Being mute throughout the entire time, Pugliese’s emotional range through her body movements and her facial expressions speak more volumes than the spoken dialogue in the plays. In commedia dell'arte, she would be “the clown,” the fool whose insane humor mixed with inner wisdom makes fools of those she encounters. Recommendation to all cell phone users: have your phones off throughout the entire production. But if Pugliese approaches you during the intermissions and if you have a phone chime of Beethoven music that you can turn on and off, she loves to hear it. But if your chime is music by Duran Duran, don’t  play it; she will run away in fear (well, at least she has good taste in music).

In "The Dead Smile," Sir Hugh (Michael Prichard, left) warns about the curse, while his servant (Eric Harris, center) and Gabriel (Eric Keitel) listen

But the real stars of the show are the founders of Unbound Productions and Wicked Lit: Paul Millet, Jeff G. Rack, and Jonathan Josephson. Along with guest director Douglas Clayton, both Millet and Rack demonstrate expert fluidity in the direction and pacing of their shows, especially Millet’s use of a video flashback on a mausoleum wall, which was one of the most chilling moments in “Count Magnus,” as well as the awesome interior crypt lighting by designer Ellen Monocroussos. And in terms of adapting these obscure pieces from prose to drama, all three co-founders possess the unique eye and ear of capturing the essence of character, plot, and the horror themes, crystallizing these qualities as though they were sealed in amber. Wicked Lit is truly a treat for lovers of horror and the classics.  

The towering stained glass window "eye" at The Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery

Wicked Lit 2012 opened October 12 and runs to November 10 (dates extended)

Mountain View Mausoleum & Cemetery

2300 N. Marengo Dr.

Altadena, CA 91001


Photos by Daniel Kitayama

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