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Review: The Woman In Black at Shakespeare Theatre Company

By Heather Rosen

Be afraid…be very afraid. The Woman In Black is waiting for you at the Lansburgh Theatre. Is she real or is she a figment of your imagination? Perhaps she is merely the embodiment of your deepest, darkest fears? This brilliantly-acted ghost story is presented by STC during the holiday season because as STC’s publicist Colleen Kennedy notes in the program, the telling of ghost stories around Christmastime is traditional in England (Exhibit A - Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Exhibit B – William Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale). And while this creepy tale may not make us reflect on our behavior and change our wicked ways in the way Dickens’ tale does, it sure is a fun romp in the dark. Based on the 1983 book by Susan Hill (which is artfully incorporated into the opening scene), and adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt in 1987 upon the request of director Robin Herford, The Woman In Black premiered in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, England in 1989 and is now the second-longest running play on the West End in London (after Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap). It was also made into a film - twice, most recently in 2012 starring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame. The 2012 film was so successful that a sequel – The Woman In Black 2: Angel Of Death - was released in 2014. So how does a film with a $17 million budget translate at the Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh with a fraction of the cast and budget? Beautifully - in fact, the stage adaptation was written for a small cast and it’s a master class in acting, sound and lighting. The illusions they created were so vivid that at one point, the audience audibly gasped when one of the characters appeared to kick his dog .. even though everyone could plainly see that there was no dog onstage. When the play opens, Arthur Kipps (played by the brilliant Robert Goodale) is on stage by himself, struggling to tell a story that he had penned. He spoke unclearly, in low tones, and seemed to merely be reading words from a page. I wondered if there was a problem with the sound but actually, this was intentional. We soon learn that Kipps’ story is autobiographical - a tale of his encounter with the supernatural world - and he is rehearsing so that he can effectively share it with his family and friends when they gather around the fire at Christmastime. However, he seems particularly shaken and nervous.  The Actor (played by the also brilliant Daniel Easton), then emerged, offering to help Kipps learn how to tell the story better using acting techniques.  Both Kipps and The Actor then begin to tell the chilling story of the old widow who died alone and the lawyer who found much more than he bargained for when he was sent to settle her affairs at the house where she had been living.  Throughout the play, Goodale and Easton took on different roles, transforming before our eyes into its various characters. Goodale seemed to undergo the most dramatic transformations, relying mostly on his awesome acting abilities (reminiscent of Jefferson Mays’ award-winning Broadway performance of nine characters in The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. ) The simple props and costumes expertly selected by Scenic and Costume designer Michael Holt were repeatedly repurposed as the actors took us on a journey from a house and a law office in London to a small town in Northeast England to the dark, deserted house of the deceased widow. Kevin Sleep’s lighting was really remarkable - it changed the tone and mood of the scene and signaled the time of day, the weather conditions, and whether  the characters were in the present or the past.  It also strategically focused the audience on parts of the stage we were supposed to see while hiding other areas until the appropriate time. But it was Sebastian Frost’s very realistic sound design that will stay with me the longest (Note: be prepared to jump – this IS a ghost story, after all.) While there is something in this show for everyone, students of acting will especially love this play within a play about acting that happens to be acted by some of the finest stage actors and designed by some of the most creative set designers I’ve ever seen. Take the family and enjoy the ride!

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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