Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Theater review: The Woman in Black at ONSTAGE in Bedford
This enticingly creepy tale will keep you on the edge of your seat.
BEDFORD There's something about this time of year that brings out the gleeful ghoul in all of us. The desire to disturb your friends and be frightened yourself takes over as All Hallows Eve approaches. The movie theaters and television fill with the most gruesome deaths directors and special effects designers can imagine. Stage theaters, as well, turn to the macabre this time of year. Richland College has Night of the Living Dead; Dracula - A Haunted Tale of Dating is playing at Fun House Theatre and Film at Plano Children's Theatre; And ONSTAGE in Bedford presents the classic The Woman in Black.
Originating in 1983 as a novel by Susan Hill, The Woman in Black is the tale of a dark specter which haunts a small English town and foreshadows the death of children. The book was adapted to the play version in 1987 by Steven Malatratt and debuted in London's West End in 1989, where it still plays today. It is the second longest running show in the West End's history, behind the sixty year run of Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. The Woman in Black also spawned two movies of the same name, one in 1989 and the most recent, starring Daniel Radcliffe, earlier this year.
A stage more suitable for a rehearsal than a performance greets the audience as they enter the theater at ONSTAGE in Bedford. Cloths cover a couch and an old trunk, while pieces like a table and a door stand as if someone hasn't decided what to do with them yet. This is all on purpose, of course, as the action of The Woman in Black takes place within a few rehearsals for the telling of the tale that has haunted Arthur Kipps, played by Kit Hussey. This dynamic creates some confusion in the casting, however. In the rehearsals within the show, the part of Arthur Kipps is played by The Actor Kipps has hired to help him tell his tale, while Kipps himself plays all the other necessary roles. The Actor is portrayed by Rick Powers but the program for the show has them listed incorrectly.
Both actors are exceptional in their roles. The first thing to notice is how well and easily they speak in English accents. Actors attempting dialects in which they are not fluent can damage a production. Hussey and Powers should be commended for their hard work and focus, subtly adding this element to draw in the audience. Their miming, much like that used in shows like Our Town, is impeccable. We can see the pony and the carriage on which they travel as they sit on the old trunk. The moss covering the headstones becomes real as Powers wipes it off and cleans it from his hands. Finally, the heights of terror both experience as they tell their tale race through the audience in ways that only master story tellers can create.
Kit Hussey is allowed to show off his great range with the multiple characters he plays. Every person, from an insecure, frightened gentleman making his first venture on a stage, to a stolid driver, and a hunched, fragile man are represented by Hussey throughout The Woman in Black. His performances compliment Powers' and keep the show on track.
Rick Powers has the meatier role as an actor playing an actor inside the play within the play. He doesn't allow this abstraction to distract from his performance, however. His terror within the story is eerie and can be uncomfortable to watch, while the moments he spends as acting coach and partner to Kipps are delightful and endearing.
Of course, the two actors do not produce a wonderfully creepy and haunting performance on their own. Excellent sound design by Jeff Mizener adds another layer of spookiness. Sounds like a busy Victorian-era Street and the clip-clopping of horse hooves increase the realism of the scenes and builds trust with the audience that the sounds they are hearing are true. When the more frightening and disturbing sound effects are added later in the show, this trust is parlayed into fear and anxiety as, just like The Actor on stage, the audience experiences uncertainty of what is real and what isn't.
The costumes are beautifully appropriate for The Woman in Black. Both Powers and Hussey spend the majority of the show in wonderfully tailored Victorian suits. A hat for the carriage driver, a coat for a frail old man, and a change of formal wear for a rich land owner, are examples of the great points of definition between Hussey's characters.
The Woman in Black presents a few interesting challenges for the lighting and set designers, who must work well in tandem. The colors chosen by Bryan S. Douglas are appropriate. Stark stage lights pull the audience and actors back to a rehearsal scene, while dimmer and moodier ambers, blues, and greens produce eerie shadows and uneasy feelings. A scrim separates the upper and lower stage areas, hiding the set behind it while the action is taking place down stage. The shocking revelation of what lies behind the scrim, along with the use of a special effect, is expertly handled by Set Designer Ellen Doyle Mizener, Lighting Designer Bryan S. Douglas, and Special Effect Designer Katherine Anthony.
The Woman in Black is well written, with the understanding of first gaining the audience's trust then slowly adding elements of creepiness. A momentary glimpse of the terror yet to come is built upon as the play progresses. The only fault ONSTAGE in Bedford has with their production is the unnecessary intermission shoe-horned into the performance at the 45 minute mark. This break gives the audience a chance to reset and loses the momentum the show had. Remarkably, the performance is able to immediately draw the audience back into its world after intermission and produce the best non-equity show I have seen this year.
It is highly recommended everybody make the trek out to Bedford and seen this limited engagement as it should not be missed.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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