If there’s one thing Jonathan Josephson loves more than classic literature, it’s the challenge of finding unique ways to bring his favorite stories to life onstage. As the executive director of the Unbound Productions theatrical troupe, he has helped guide audience members through the middle of the action in fully immersive productions of classic horror stories at Altadena’s Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery since 2010.
That Wicked Lit series has grown to become a sold-out sensation, becoming one of the most popular things to do in Los Angeles each Halloween season. Unbound’s History Lit banner has also produced a flash poetry performance of Charles Bukowski poems at Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood and staged performances of stories by female authors of the 19th and 20th centuries at the Pasadena Museum of History’s Fenyes Mansion.
This weekend, they’ll be presenting their first full-length play ever, when their Mystery Lit division offers the 105-minute, two-act “Mystery Lit: Holmes, Sherlock and The Consulting Detective” at the historic Santa Anita Train Depot on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in Arcadia. A theatrical mash-up of three of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries — “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Red-Headed League” and “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” — the audience-immersive, site-specific production is the result of two years of development and marks their most ambitious effort yet.
“We’ve done a number of readings of this over the years, but this one is fully realized with lights, effects and costumes, moving through the space, the whole kit and caboodle,” says Josephson, who notes that part of the development was funded by the Pasadena Arts Commission. “We’ve been looking for two years for the right place that is physically grand and has lots of atmosphere, but it’s been extremely helpful to have so many readings over the years since we could tailor it perfectly to this location.”
The production features 12 actors playing more than 25 different characters as it weaves together the three stories via a maze of clues and misdirection. Unbound is utilizing several inventive techniques, including having three different actors portray Holmes as he’s addressed by the three different names in the title.
The reason for the sleuth having different names is that it appears that he’s attempting to solve three different crimes as the stories intertwine and unfold simultaneously. The show also features a different sidekick for each part of the mystery, rather than just the famed Dr. Watson.
But the real star of the show is the Depot, which was built by the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe Railroad in 1890, but wound up abandoned for decades. It was moved in 1970 from its original location a quarter-mile north of the arboretum — with its 100,000 bricks remarkably taken apart and restored to facilitate the relocation — and reopened to visitors.
“The play is set in 1889, the heyday of Holmes, and it’s obviously not English but it gives a sense of time if not place,” explains Josephson. “We love all the fauna, flora, because it gives a lot of atmosphere and a lot of depth on the logistical side. The audience moves through three locations, and though there’s less movement than in a Wicked Lit performance, you do have to stand at some points. All of Act Two requires standing, but you do move a couple of times, and the time flies.”
While Josephson wrote the play, creating the bridges among the three mysteries and inventing some fresh characters, he estimates that 45 percent of the show uses the original writing of Doyle. His Unbound co-founders also play key roles, with Artistic Director Paul Millet serving as director and Producing Artistic Director Jeff G. Rack overseeing the complex production design, including numerous effects.
“People who love Wicked Lit are going to love this, too,” says Millet. “From the most ambitious sets and costumes that we’ve ever had, to the way that the audience will move in the space, to the way that storytelling will blend in and out of a conscious theatrical reality — this is going to be a cerebral, entertaining play that folks are going to be talking about for years.”
The hope is for Mystery Lit to become as popular as Wicked Lit, as the trio is in the process of developing 12 new mystery plays from 12 different playwrights. Their goal is to mix famous tales with ones that have been lost or forgotten and fallen into public domain copyright status, and they also hope to continue staging the division’s future shows at the depot.
“Our mission is to create immersive theatrical adaptations of classic theater stories, so we’re looking for great storytelling, whether from folk tales or published literature, and bringing them to life,” says Josephson. “Whether it’s Wicked, History or Mystery Lit, they all satisfy us and intrigue us, and we hope to entertain people in different ways. Our passion is for individual projects first and the specific story will follow the project.”
“Mystery Lit: Holmes, Sherlock and the Consulting Detective” runs from Saturday through July 1 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. Performances are at 8 p.m. on varying Wednesdays through Sundays. Tickets are $40 to $60. Visit unboundproductions.org or call (323) 332-2065.