Los Angeles Theater Review: THE WOMAN IN BLACK (Pasadena Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on October 26, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles


Pasadena Playhouse’s production of The Woman in Black is a delicious, handcrafted thriller of the classic style, at once dingy and disturbing. Based on Susan Hill’s 1983 faux-Gothic novel, the slight ghost story follows Mr. Kipps, a British junior solicitor hired to sort out the estate of a deceased recluse who lived in an eccentric house surrounded by gloomy marshes and possibly inhabited by a vengeful ghost. Steven Mallatratt’s 1987 stage adaptation adds a layer to the tale by creating the role of an actor, who helps to tell the ghastly story. This allows viewers to imagine the ghoulish goings on without needing a massive budget for a set. Because of quite a bit of start-and-stop from Mr. Kipps complaining that he can’t act, the production doesn’t truly start gathering steam until the midway point (and I wish there was a way to cut the intermission), but once it does, the theatrical restraint starts paying off. Who knew a simple scrim and the sound of a scream could have such a sinister effect?

This direct transfer from the Cleveland Playhouse is staged by original director Robin Herford, who recreates his original staging for the first time in the U.S. The original London West End production, which opened in 1989 and is still running, has been staged over 11,300 times and is the second longest running drama in English theatrical history. It is only eclipsed by Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which has had over 27,000 performances. It was adapted into a not-so-scary 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe, followed by an awful sequel with reviews scarier than anything in the movie.

Even in a large proscenium house, it maintains the same rough-theater appeal and the extraordinary and enduring potency of simple suggestion that I saw at that tiny space in London back in 1999. (But do try and get seats close to the stage.) Chicago actor Bradley Armacost plays the aging Arthur Kipps, haunted by sinister events that befell him 30 years earlier. Adam Wesley Brown plays the actor hired to help him tell his story for an invited audience in an effort to exorcise Kipp’s demons.

At the top of the tale, Mr. Kipp is summoned from London to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow, the sole inhabitant of a house near a small seaside village. He is unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows. It is not until he espies at the funeral a gaunt young woman in (you guessed it) black, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling fortified by the reticence of the locals to talk about the sepulchral figure — and her awful intent.

Without gore, the creators use the strangely unnerving air of a vacant theater to remarkable advantage, making the audience feel almost like phantom onlookers. And the shudders are compellingly effective, especially when we don’t have to imagine the eddying fog, a groaning rocking chair, an impenetrable door, or a pale face approaching out of the gloom. Even without those small theatrical aides, you can almost feel the chill of night and the pull of the muck in the salt marshes beyond the causeway, a road which gets covered by high tide.

It’s a shame that the State Theater of California can’t give us more than a two-person co-production without upping the ante on some of the set (it would have been awesome to have scattered props spill out into the house or above us). The red lighting on a locked door works wonders to spook, but a projection of the gaunt, sinister Eel Marsh House from Kipps’ tormented memory fails to impress, and the graveyard made of sheets feels low-tech more than creepy.

But the screeches and gulps from spectators proves that, even in our tech-savvy era, this intrepid little play still takes us in with all of its mischief and peril.

photos by Roger Mostroianni

The Woman in Black
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena
Tues at 8 (Oct. 30 & Nov. 5); Wed–Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on November 11, 2018
for tickets, call 626.356.7529 or visit Pasadena Playhouse

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