“It was 9:30 on Christmas Eve,” the lone figure entones in the grandest theatrical tradition of beginning an eerie tale. This holiday season, our fair city is visited by one of Britain’s longest running plays, spooky or otherwise. The Woman in Black has taken up residence at the newly named Michael R. Klein Theatre on 7th Street NW and is prepared to chill the spines of all who enter.
The Woman in Black is celebrating its 30th anniversary in London’s West End and has already whooshed around the world a bit. Prior to its 1989 stage debut, the story was a 1983 book by Susan Hill which Stephen Mallatratt adapted for the stage.
The experience of this touring production appears to be completely faithful to its London version. Director Robin Herford, in fact, has overseen every cast change and international production to date, and continues in this role once again. In the copious program notes – always a highlight of Shakespeare Theatre Company productions – Herford talks about the necessity of an economical production in a small, studio space as the original impetus for commissioning Mallatratt to work on adapting the modern ghost novel. The resulting play is a wonderful, theatrical endeavor, heavy on the story-telling, complete with a play-within-a-play that is the actual vehicle for the macabre tale. I am loathe to discuss many other plot points for fear of ruining the experience for anyone who has not experienced this show. The Woman in Black is the type of play where I would almost expect the actors to insist the audience take an oath not to reveal its secrets.
The Woman in Black closes December 22, 2019. Details and tickets
The basic story is as follows: a seasoned solicitor, Arthur Kipps, arrives in a Victorian era theatre to read his own manuscript recounting ghastly experiences from his younger days. He is met by a young actor whom Kipps has hired to help him tell the tale to an invited audience. What follows is a seemingly bare bones retelling of Kipps’ journey to Crythin Gifford, a small town in the north. The hired actor becomes the younger Kipps; Kipps himself shares the narrator duties and enacts all the other characters encountered along the way.
Kipps’ purpose is to sort out the affairs of the recently deceased Mrs. Alice Drablow who lived in Eel Marsh House, an eerie mansion surrounded by dangerous marshlands. As one might expect from the title, the young solicitor sees a woman in black at Mrs. Drablow’s funeral and thus begins his frightening odyssey into spectral sightings and riveting revelations that ripple far beyond the marshlands.
Daniel Easton brings charm and earnestness as the Actor and the younger Kipps, and his rapport with Robert Goodale as the older Kipps is palpable. Both men draw in the audience with their impeccable timing, and wide-eyed wonder at the increasingly terrifying tale.
While not a script of great substance, Herford works many theatrical magic tricks into the performance which kept me on the edge of my seat.There are moments of outright jump-scares, well-timed and scattered throughout, as well as a building sense of dread of the dusty old Eel Marsh House.
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The atmospheric set, evoking an old, Victorian theatre, looks perfectly at home on the Klein Theatre stage, with strategic drop-cloths that will reveal more than meets the eyes as the tale unfolds. Michael Holt’s set design truly comes to life (and death) under the expert lighting design of Kevin Sleep, who makes full use of everything from the house lights to effective backlighting and scrims to maximum scare potential. Holt’s period costumes give the actors plenty to work with, especially Goodale, as he switches coats and hats to portray a variety of country gentleman and others the young Kipps encounters.
The true secret of The Woman in Black, ultimately, is it is only as good as the audience’s imagination. If you enjoy the idea of a cozy seat in a darkened theatre where a couple of actors are ready to take you down darkened paths with a chilling story to keep you on the edge of your seat, this is the show for you. And you would be wise to keep the secrets of The Woman in Black.
The Woman in Black by Stephen Mallatratt .Based on the book by Susan Hill . Directed by Robin Herford . Featuring Robert Goodale and Daniel Easton. Associate Director Antony Eden . Set and costume designer Michael Holt . Lighting designer Kevin Sleep . Original sound designer Rod Mead . Sound designer Sebastian Frost . Deputy stage manager Catherine Cooper . Produced by PW Productions . Presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.