The leaves are starting to turn, the wind is getting a little cooler (in theory… most of the time…), and candy prices are going up. That’s right, it’s Halloween season! And while the standard haunted houses popping up around town offer a classic, traditional way to get your spook on as the holiday approaches, maybe you’re looking for something a little different? Cup-a-Jo Productions and Pittsburgh Fringe offer just that, putting a creative twist on the format with the new haunted theater experience UNHINGED.
UNHINGED is a series of four short performances linked by a guided tour through a haunted house built inside the Blue Hazel Studios space in Etna. It’s kind of like walking through a Treehouse of Horror episode. As the show begins, the attendees gather in a waiting area with snacks, Halloweeny magnets, and other decorations. Soon, your slightly-off-his-rocker host arrives to usher you inside, cackling and cajoling you to stay close as you enter the maze.
The haunted theater itself is very well executed. Build Manager Nicolette Chilton Spudic and her team have brought years of haunting experience to the task, and it shows. The space feels huge as you walk through its corridors, and is filled with nooks and crannies from which the crew of haunters can jump out and scare guests. (Or offer candy. They’ve got both trick and treat covered.)
At each stop on the tour, the host guides the attendees into position around the set of the performance as the action begins. For the first performance, Maura Underwood, Eric Matthews, and Michael Todd Schneider perform EYESEEYOU, written and directed by Schneider. EYESEEYOU follows a young couple whose preparations for a Halloween take an unexpected turn … into terror! Schneider’s performance as the villain of the piece gives the show an excellent start. I don’t want to give anything away, but he absolutely captures the menacing unpredictability that the part demands.
The show’s second spine-chilling spectacle is The Scariest Halloween Maze in the World, written by Kim Z. Dale and directed by Todd Betker. In this psychological horror piece, Joanna Lowe – Cup-a-Jo’s artistic director and the mastermind behind the whole UNHINGED concept – and Madeline Dalesio star as a mother and daughter lured by a clown (George Saunier) into what they think is an ordinary Halloween maze. But inside, they find a different kind of fear than they expect. This piece was submitted as part of a competition to pick one of the stories for UNHINGED, and stood out from the rest as a perfect fit for their concept. Lowe and Dalesio do a great job establishing the mother-daughter relationship in the opening, which heightens the impact of later events in the maze.
UNHINGED’s third sinister showcase is a spoken word/dance piece about a serial killer haunted by lost love. Which is not a sentence one gets to write every day. Written and read by Joanna Lowe with direction and dance by Liz Tripoli and Lacy Brooks, “All My Available Space” is a dark tour through the reminiscences of a killer. As she autopsies her latest victim, another from the past dances through her mind. Along with Tripoli’s choreography, the set design and costuming here very effectively set the mood for the poem. The inclusion of “All My Available Space,” a really creepy performance of a completely different style than the others, highlights the flexibility of the anthology format.
The frightful journey culminates with an adaptation by Everett and Joanna Lowe of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.” Unfortunately, in this instance crediting the actors would be a spoiler. The adaptation of this literary classic to the unique stage in UNHINGED creates a lot of fun possibilities. The narrator’s slide into madness as the sound of the heartbeat persists is one of the most effective “haunting” moments of the night – the crew of haunters lurks in the areas outside the stage, chanting “faster and louder” so the audience feels it pressing in from all sides as well. Familiar faces from the other performances make appearances as the show draws to a close, tying the whole experience together.
And it’s not done yet! After the show is over, the cast and crew mingle with the attendees in the reception area by the entrance. It’s a great chance to check out some of the costumes up close and hear about the development of the show.
UNHINGED is a creative and ambitious take on the haunted house genre. It’s a great experience for Halloween lovers, and I hope to see the format continue in the future. Go check it out, and make sure to stick around for the reception! (Tell the cast of “The Telltale Heart” they did a great job since I couldn’t.)
Cup-A-Jo Productions’ UNHINGED runs three shows (at 8, 9:30, and 11 PM) Fridays and Saturdays until 10/27 as well as on Halloween. Make sure to book tickets in advance!