The Woman in Black | Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

The-Woman-in-Black 500SATE is able to give us a chill with it, even while somewhat hampered by the audience being right on top of them rather than at the distance a larger space can provide.

The-Woman-in-Black 75

Slightly Askew Theatre Company (SATE) is mounting four plays/events in what they’re calling “The Season of the Monster.” The second of these presentations is The Woman in Black, on stage now. Perfect for this time of year, the show has been running continuously in London’s West End since 1989. I saw it there in 2006 and found it remarkably scary within the limitations of live action. SATE is able to give us a chill with it, even while somewhat hampered by the audience being right on top of them rather than at the distance a larger space can provide.

Rachel Tibbetts has directed her cast on a slightly raised platform at one end of the room (and I do mean “slight;” actors step on and off it regularly without using the two steps stage right) and also makes effective use of the aisles created by the seating for entrances, exits, and appearances of the title character. Based on a novel by Susan Hill and adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt, this is a two-hander, not counting the spook, and quite a demanding one at that. It is Christmas Eve when we meet Arthur Kipps, a family man, who is onstage alone reading aloud from a tattered leather volume, which, it soon become apparent, is not a storybook but a sort of journal. He feels compelled to share the experiences set down therein and has even rented an old Victorian Theatre to do a reading for his family and friends. He is on the stage “rehearsing” and doing quite a bad job of it when a young actor (Jared Sanz-Agero) enters from the back and begins coaching Kipps.

There are comic moments here as Kipps stumbles around, and a running joke (“You’re no [Henry] Irving,” and “We’ll make an Irving of you yet”), and the two finally hit upon a way to demonstrate to Kipps how the performance should be delivered. The actor takes the role of the younger Kipps and the real Kipps plays all the other characters met during the course of his journey into Northern England many years ago. This is the show we see, so further references to “Kipps” in the plot summary below refer to Sanz-Agero.

Kipps was a young man himself when he was sent by his law firm to settle the estate of Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House located outside the town of Crythin Gifford. On the train there, he meets a helpful stranger named Daily, a sort of “hale fellow well-met” type who provides him with contacts, transportation, and even a little dog named Spider to keep him company in the dark and lonely house, which is cut off from the outside for a period each day at high tide. It is shrouded in mist from the sea, making it sometimes difficult to see a hand in front of one’s face — a problem later and frighteningly encountered by Kipps.

Kipps is ensconced in a comfortable hostel and writes to his fiancée, Stella, that he can almost believe he’s on holiday, but things go downhill rapidly for him. He is sent to Mrs. Drablow’s local solicitor, Mr. Jerome, with whom he attends the old woman’s funeral and witnesses Jerome go into shock when Kipps sees a woman (Shelby Partridge) wearing a long black dress and veil at the cemetery and asks Jerome who she is. She stands out because Mrs. Drablow had only himself and Jerome as mourners. Jerome recovers after getting Kipps away from the churchyard. Later, an old-time pony and trap driven by a laconic man named Keckwick drives Kipps to the house where a mountain of paperwork awaits. Kipps decides it would be most efficient if he just stayed in the house, but. . . . well, stay tuned.

The fascinating aspect of The Woman In Black, at least to me, is that it isn’t just a ghost story — there are a lot of those — but it has a whole other level of meaning involving imagination and the creation of theatre. The two men speak of it during their preparation — that it is within our ability to create what we expect to see. A trunk and a chair become a trap, several chairs placed carefully are a train, a chair and desk are an office, and so on. There is nothing moving or funny or frightening that our own minds don’t make it so. The audience is the corner piece of the puzzle, what makes the events real and the picture whole. And, as the Actor explains to the real Kipps, sound is key to the process. He demonstrates how what we hear contributes to what we see and can make us believe we’re on a city street, a moving train or in a foggy marsh, which leads to the other bit of theatre magic: lights and special, if simple, effects. These are what pull us into the story and make us not just see it, but live it.

The set may suggest, but it is up us to fill in the blanks. Do the white sheets on the old furniture evoke ghosts? Are the lights used to create locations and moods (including here footlights, which nod to the Victorian theatre)? At one point, the Actor even praises Kipps for a particular “coup de théâtre,” acknowledging the theatricality of the piece. Bess Moynihan is responsible for scenic and excellent lighting design, Elizabeth Henning for the entirely appropriate costumes, Ellie Schwetye for the excellent sound design, and Pamela Reckamp helped with the credible regional accents.

The other component of theatre, of course, is the acting. Do the actors not just deliver their lines capably, but are they in character themselves? Are they listening to each other? Are their expressions and movements appropriate? Here is also where the director comes in because she is the first audience and the one who can help them find the person or persons they are pretending to be, just as the Actor does for Kipps in what becomes a play within a play. Tibbetts pulls all the elements together with deceptive ease.

The acting itself is very good. I haven’t seen Sanz-Agero recently, but he seems to have attained a more authoritative stage presence than I remember. Weller, who has been working a lot lately, is particularly impressive here playing multiple roles. The only one who seems to bring out the Snidely Whiplash in him occasionally is Keckwith, the driver. When I first started seeing Weller, he seemed diffident at times, he underplayed so much that he didn’t always seem fully invested. That has changed, and I think he’s one of the best actors in town now, given material that suits him, and this does. This play is not Shakespeare (though it is rather Shakespearean) but does provide a well-crafted lesson and demonstration of the art of theatre and an absorbing and startling ghost story in the bargain. | Andrea Braun

The Woman in Black runs through November 9. You may contact slightlyoff.org for ticket information, a performance schedule, and directions.

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