Fearful Symmetries

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05 November, 2013

Just in Time for Halloween: The Woman in Black at the Bartell



It's not often I attend a live theatrical performance, especially in Madison. And so the folks at Strollers and OUT!Cast should take it as a great compliment that they lured me in with their take on The Woman in Black.

I've not read the book by Susan Hill which is the basis of this play but have seen the film by James Watkins which was released last year. (It was a Hammer film!) With the movie in mind, I was struck at just how different the play was. Adapted for the stage in the late 80s by Stephen Malatratt, The Woman in Black has been a fixture on London stages ever since.

It takes place in London "somewhere in the past century..." (note the foreboding ellipsis) and begins in a theatre where an aging Arthur Kipps (played by Sam White) has come to present his eldritch and woeful tale to the proprietor, a younger man referred to only as "The Actor" (Pete Ammel), so that it may admonish audiences and, presumably, serve to assuage some of his guilt. Kipps' story goes back decades when he was a young solicitor (i.e. - lawyer) who was tasked with going to a small town called Crythin Gifford where he would attend the funeral of one Alice Drablow and get the deceased woman's estate in order.

The conceit here is that Kipps' tale is told as a play with the play. Lighting cues switch us back and forth between the time when the older Kipps is relating his story and the harrowing events from his younger days. Since the performance features only two main actors, Ammel becomes the younger Kipps while White takes on everyone else. This is remarkably effective and abetted by only costume changes, a minimal set, and judicious use of a fog machine.

Kipps first sees the titular character at Mrs. Drablow's funeral but she becomes a more frequent sight as Kipps investigates Drablow's house which, funnily enough, becomes inaccessible when the tides roll in. The secret of why the woman in black haunts Crythin Gifford is slowly unveiled as Kipps reads through letters and teases details from the locals who suffer her presence. Like Kipps at the beginning of the play, this restless spirit is haunted by guilt.

Most of the set consists of a large trunk and a couple of chairs but off to one side is a door. The last of these sits unused until Kipps begins investigating the house and, thanks to some skillful lighting and a well-timed scream, eventually it becomes the most ominous door I've ever witnessed on a stage.

Both Ammel and White put in wonderful performances but White deserves to be singled out as he was required to take on several roles changing accents as he goes. The acting, lighting, set, and sound all combined perfectly for a great bit of gothic horror.

Hopefully Madison theatre troupes will come to their senses and realize that they are welcome to put on tales of horror during months other than October.

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|| Palmer, 7:48 PM

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