I’ve never paid much attention to Halloween theater. The runs of Halloween shows are often short and sometimes drift close to being amateur, carnival-style haunted houses. And unlike Christmas theater in December, Halloween theater takes place in a month when LA theater offers plenty of non-holiday-related openings that also are worthy of attention.
This year, however, I decided to take another look at the subject. If I expand the definition of the Halloween theme to include any kind of a show that has the primary intent to provide a vivid scare, one of our major theaters — the Geffen — has entered the seasonal spirit with its production of an old-fashioned thriller, Wait Until Dark.
Also, I found myself curious about how Zombie Joe has converted his signature Urban Death production into a Halloween attraction, how Theatre 68 has replaced its previous haunted house with a new zombie play for its new (temporary?) home in NoHo, and how Wicked Lit has transformed a mausoleum and cemetery into a hot ticket for horror-related site-specific theater.
I’m still drawing the line, so far, at attending The Purge: Fear the Night, at Variety Arts Theater. It sounds a lot like a promotional adjunct for the movie The Purge — which would make it an interactive theme park attraction that’s taking place at a theater instead of at a theme park. But if anyone would beg to differ with that perhaps uninformed assessment, let me know.
Meanwhile, back to Wait Until Dark. I had never seen the play — only the movie, decades ago. It probably helps to have forgotten — or to never have known — as much of the plot as possible. I entered it with a relatively blank slate in my mind, and I was impressed.
I generally am more likely to be frightened by suspense thrillers that take place among living human beings than I am by supernatural tales that require the extra suspension of my usual disbelief in zombies, ghosts, the devil, or mutated monsters.
Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark, as probably most of you know, is about a blind woman threatened by criminals — not by anything supernatural. At the Geffen, it’s re-set from its original ‘60s period into an earlier era — 1944 — which probably makes it even more plausible, as most of us weren’t around in the ‘40s and won’t be as distracted by any slight implausibilities as we might be if we had been adults back then. At any rate, it’s certainly plausible enough to satisfy most theatergoers in 2013.
The setting in 1944 also takes us back to a period when civilization itself seemed imperiled in a way that was much more tangible than the threats of nuclear annihilation in the ‘60s or any single threat that faces us today. Not that adapter Jeffrey Hatcher or director Matt Shakman elevate this into the forefront of our minds, but the wartime setting adds an extra resonance to blind Susan’s heroism in her fight against the thugs who attack her, at the same time when America was fighting international thugs in the macrocosm.
I won’t go into any more detail about what happens, but the slow buildup to the final crisis is inexorable. Even an intermission doesn’t break the mood very much — it takes place immediately following a revelatory but unspoken gesture that leaves the audience buzzing.
The cast, led by Alison Pill as Susan, is formidable, and so are the behind-the scenes contributions of designers Craig Siebels (set), Elizabeth Harper (lighting) and Jonathan Snipes (music and sound) and fight director Ned Mochel. If suspense interests you, do not wait until the Gil Cates Theater is dark again (on November 18). And look for seats as close to the stage as possible to make it a more immersive experience.
**Production photos by Michael Lamont.
Wait Until Dark, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave, Westwood. Tues-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Closes Nov 17. www.geffenplayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.
Speaking of immersive experiences in a theater, you won’t have to think about sitting close to the stage at Zombie Joe’s Urban Death Tour of Terror — chances are you won’t be sitting at all. When you check in, on the sidewalk outside the theater, you’re given a little flashlight. As soon as you enter the door, you need it to see where you’re going — through a corridor of horrors.
This part of the experience, which takes place in what is usually the lobby of the theater, is indeed a haunted house attraction — a winding route past a number of living apparitions who are only inches away from you. But most haunted houses don’t have the horror-theater credentials of Zombie Joe behind them. He doesn’t wait for Halloween season — he specializes in the horror genre through much of the year, and so he has fine-tuned his troupe’s haunted-house skills to a feverish pitch.
This show, in fact, is an adaptation of one of his signature productions — Urban Death, which is usually performed in a standard black-box configuration and normally consists of quick blackouts separating very brief glimpses of horrible happenings. In Urban Death Tour of Terror, after your baptism by fire through the haunted-house entrance into the theater, you find yourself in the relatively familiar terrain of the black box, where you see a shortened version of Urban Death itself, for a much smaller audience than is usually there to see it. But when it’s over, you have to return through the Tour of Terror gantlet in order to get back to the front entrance. Lankershim Boulevard never looked as friendly as it does when you emerge from the Tour of Terror.
With five performances nightly on Fridays and Saturdays, Tour of Terror isn’t a major investment of time, but its scares-per-minute ratio is very high. Indeed, if any production can make me take back what I said above, about how realistic thrillers usually frighten me more than productions with supernatural elements, this is it — because the space is so small and these creatures from another realm are so close.
Urban Death Tour of Terror, Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8:30 pm, 9:15 pm, 10 pm, 10:45 pm, 11:30 pm. Closes Nov 2. zombiejoes.homestead.com. 818-202-4120.
A couple of blocks north of Zombie Joe’s, the 68 Cent Crew that used to produce at Theatre 68 in Hollywood (including some haunted houses) has turned the little back theater at NoHo Arts Center into a deteriorating little rural church sanctuary, where a group of living human beings seek refuge from the zombies who are wreaking havoc outside, in The Afflicted. .
It’s a “dark comedy” by Leif Gantvoort, and — as someone who doesn’t take zombies seriously — I was glad to see that Gantvoort doesn’t either.
Let’s put it this way — in Urban Death Tour of Terror, while you know that down deep it’s just-pretend, you never get the feeling that the actors are pulling your leg in any way, shape or form. If they were pulling your leg, they would probably proceed to eat it. By contrast, Gantvoort provides enough winks through his dialogue that you know that he’s trying to make it funny, instead of making it terrifying.
This isn’t to say that the actors (including Gantvoort himself) literally wink or break character, or that the fake blood doesn’t flow copiously, or that the zombie makeup is half-hearted in Danny Cistone’s staging. But some of the lines that the characters spout were clearly written for a parody more than for an orthodox zombie flick. And some of the situations too — as a bleary-eyed priest grows sleepier from drinking too much wine, one of the refugees who happens to be an exotic dancer gives him a lap dance in order to keep him awake.
I’m not sure there is any pressing need to parody zombie movies and TV shows, but this is a pretty good example of the genre — and the fact that the space is even smaller than the group’s previous Hollywood home intensifies that cooped-up-against-the-zombies feeling. In fact, when you exit, you can’t exit through the door in which you came in. There is presumably too much zombie paraphernalia out in the hallway to permit it (as well as a consideration for the production that’s taking place next door), so you exit through a previously unseen door out into an alley.
The Afflicted, NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Closes Nov 16. www.plays411.net. 323-960-5068.
If Zombie Joe and 68 Cent Crew turn their uses of very small spaces and no-intermission momentum into advantages, Wicked Lit 2013 in Altadena goes in the opposite direction, using a large, sprawling space over too much time. The space provides interesting scenic variety, but not enough to justify a running time of more than 200 minutes.
Wicked Lit takes over a large mausoleum and part of the adjacent cemetery (Mountain View) and dramatizes three classic horror stories. Scenes inspired by a fourth story provide additional entertainment during the two intermissions, as well as before the first story and after the last story.
The audience, numbering about 100 at each performance, is broken into three groups that see the three main plays in different orders, so that each of the three is presented three times a night.
Of the three stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The New Catacomb” provides the best match between a narrative and its site. The plot involves a scholar who takes an acquaintance down into a newly discovered catacomb. Being led through the dimly lit corridors of the mausoleum is an effective simulation of descending into catacombs. The audience members, like the characters, are told to cling to a string in order to find their way back — but at one point, the string disappears. The story was adapted by Jonathan Josephson and directed by Douglas Clayton (who — full disclosure — works at LA STAGE Alliance which publishes LA STAGE Times).
By contrast, Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is set entirely outdoors, in gardens and courtyard and along a road that leads into the cemetery itself for the story’s climax. This one is thoroughly narrated, with members of its relatively large cast taking turns as narrator. But its images of the famous headless horseman are suggested more than realized. Josephson adapted the text and Jeff G. Rack directed.
The first big scene of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear” takes place in a chapel, where we’re surrounded by hostile parties who have guns. It evokes the chilling sensation of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But as the story moves on, the tension deflates as the former rivals join forces in pursuit of a monster and the action moves outdoors. The final scenes are curiously anti-climactic — but this was the third show in my group’s sequence, so maybe I was also growing weary as we entered Hour 4. Rack and Josephson adapted, and Paul Millet directed.
The extra performances in the courtyard between plays, as well as before the start and after the end, take too much time. Little talks from the artistic director about the other projects of Unbound Productions and membership possibilities don’t exactly increase the intensity of the production we’re already attending.
Wicked Lit 2013, Mountain View Mausoleum and Cemetery, 2300 N. Marengo Ave., Altadena (do not enter from Fair Oaks). Thu-Sun through Oct 27, Wed-Sat Oct 30-Nov 2. Preshow at 7 pm, plays start at 7:30 pm. wickedlit.org. 323- 332-2065.
Invisible Cities is a much more streamlined and effective site-specific production, which opened Saturday at Union Station. It isn’t Halloween-related, and I don’t normally cover opera. So I’ll be brief. It’s an enchanting experience that I recommend highly.
The audience assembles in the train station’s former restaurant, where we hear the orchestra perform the overture to Christopher Cerrone’s haunting score. Then, wearing wireless headsets, we enter the magnificent gardens and the other rooms of the 1939 structure. We wander wherever we like, listening to Cerrone’s dramatization of selected parts of Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel Invisible Cities, which relates an encounter between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo in which Polo tells the emperor about cities in his domain that Polo has visited — most of which the emperor has never seen.
We encounter the singers and dancers as well as the regular customers of Union Station along the way. For a long time the main characters are dressed like someone at Union Station might be dressed, so we might have to pick out the emperor and the explorer from among the people around us. Sometimes lyrics are projected on the walls. The general theme is about the mixed blessings of exploring distant cities as well as one’s home — an apt subject for a production in a train station.
Invisible Cities lasts only 75 minutes, culminating in a finale in the former ticket-selling room, a soaring cathedral-like space that amply justifies the final words of the libretto — “make them endure, give them space.” With Kublai Khan on one end of the long room and Marco Polo on the other end, with the dancers performing Danielle Agami’s choreography atop the old ticket counter, with Cerrone’s score soaking into our brains, this is a thrilling moment.
It’s a collaboration between director Yuval Sharon’s The Industry and L.A. Dance Project. More, please.
Invisible Cities, Union Station, 800 N. Alameda St., LA. Thu Oct 24 and 31, Sat Oct 26, Tue Oct 29 and Nov 5, Fri Nov 8, 7:30 pm and 10 pm. invisiblecitiesopera.com.