Sneaking onto cemetery grounds in the dead of night is one of the scariest things to do during Halloween season. As one of the founders of Unbound Productions, Jonathan Josephson has helped more than 13,000 people across Los Angeles achieve that goal by creating an immersive-theater experience that also takes them into the heart of the giant mausoleum at Mountain View Mausoleum & Cemetery in Altadena.
Unbound’s ninth annual production of Wicked Lit launches Friday night and runs through Nov. 11, bringing four classic short horror stories to life in the course of each evening’s performance. This year’s plays are “The Damned Thing”, adapted by Jeff G. Rack from a story by Ambrose Bierce; “Thoth’s Labyrinth,” adapted by Josephson from the ancient Egyptian legend “The Book of Thoth;” “The Open Door,” adapted by Kristen Brandt from the short story by Margaret Oliphant; and “Liliom,” adapted by Kerry Kazmierowicztrimm from the play by Ferenc Molnar.
“This year, it’s a mixture of play that we’ve had in development for a while,” says Josephson. “We first did a reading of ‘The Open Door’ at the Huntington in 2014, and it’s set in the Pompeiian Court, the beautiful outdoor mausoleum that’s a two-story space, so the audience goes up and down and the action happens all around them. It’s really freaky, about a possessed child and the parents’ investigation of what’s going on, so it’s the first time we’ve had kid actors.”
“The Damned Thing” is this year’s cemetery-based tale, centering on a man named Hugh, who finds himself inside a mysterious church where he discovers supernatural abilities — and his own mangled dead body. When his best friend is identified as a suspect in his murder, Hugh must find a way to manipulate the investigation to discover who, or what, actually caused his death.
“Liliom” sounds especially creepy, with its story set at the first stop after death, on the way to either heaven or hell — although some will find it’s their final destination. But Josephson’s favorite segment is his own production of “Thoth’s Labyrinth,” in which three adventurers and their sidekicks are on the hunt for one of the most sought-after artifacts of ancient history, “The Book of Thoth.” The book is said to grant the reader magical abilities and endless life, but deeply kept secrets and painful lies are revealed as the expedition becomes a race between life and death.
“‘Labyrinth’ is the most different. It’s like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ in the dark in the labyrinth — we have adventurers, curses, amulets, Egyptian gods and long-lost children, and it’s set in 1972 Altadena,” explains Josephson. “So when you walk into Mountain View Mausoleum, you’re actually walking into the mausoleum in the show. It’s loosely inspired by an Egyptian legend called ‘Book of Ghosts,’ and is like Wicked Lit within Wicked Lit.”
Unbound used puppetry and special effects more than usual in last year’s edition and continues in that vein with the new set of plays. Yet Josephson notes that the audience will be led through the biggest area of the grounds used to date, and will be going through numerous places in the mausoleum that have been overlooked in the past.
With that noted, prospective audience members are advised that Wicked Lit is a walking show, in which attendees must be able to comfortably walk a minimum of 2,000 steps and climb stairs in order to experience the production. Since the plays contain mature themes, theatrical violence and sexual situation, the production is recommended for those ages 16 and up, and it runs nearly three hours including two intermissions.
The production process for Wicked Lit is intense, with the actors performing the plays nearly 100 times by the time dress rehearsals are finished. This year’s first rehearsal took place on Aug. 19, about six weeks before opening night, and the schedule included 10 days of technical rehearsals as well.
Josephson notes that the scale of Wicked Lit has grown by leaps and bounds each year, and that Unbound tries to find new talent and their fresh ideas for each year’s productions alongside returning veteran performers.
“For example, Kirsten who wrote ‘The Open Door’ lives in Northern California and is pretty well-known regionally and nationally as a director,” says Josephson. “She brings a world of experience from directing Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theatre and productions much larger than ours, but she can boil that experience down and put on the playwright hat. The question is, if she directs for 1,000 people in the audience, what’s it like for 35 people? It adds another dimension for her and us.”
Unbound Productions presents Wicked Lit Friday through Nov. 11 at Mountain View Mausoleum & Cemetery, 2300 N. Marengo Ave., Altadena. Tickets are $40 to $80. Call (323) 332-2065 or visit wickedlit.org.