Review: Penfold Theatre spooks us with WOMAN IN BLACK

By: Oct. 19, 2017
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WOMAN IN BLACK is in its 28th year on London's West End. It's catching up to Agatha Christie's MOUSETRAP, but it isn't there, not quite yet, but it's easy to see why WOMAN IN BLACK keeps going. It's like a ghost story told round the campfire that never gets old. This PG-13 story is a classic thriller that can effectively scare even the most surly of patrons, young and old.

Also, there is something about live theatre that makes the point of a show like WOMAN IN BLACK a particular challenge to pull off, but when done well, it's easy to see why 7 million theatre goers in England have attended the show. It helps that the whole theatre is used in the story, given that it takes place in a theatre, as a play within a play. This meta-approach definitely turns up the fear factor. You just never know when something spooky will lurk up just behind your otherwise cozy theatre seat in the dark. In England, WOMAN IN BLACK is part of the school curriculum for younger teens, so one might imagine the requisite terrified teenage girls absorbing with great flair the story line and lifelike scares of this gothic story. In Austin, The Scottish Rite Theatre makes it our treat.

This adaptation of the book finds lawyer Arthur Kipps (Stephen Price) obsessed with a curse that he believes has been cast over him and his family by the spirit of the WOMAN IN BLACK. He enlists the assistance of a skeptical young actor (Kareem Badr) to help him tell and perform the story so that he might release it from his psyche for good. This sets us up for the play within a play, were we learn that Kipps had in the past been summoned to Crythin Gifford, a market town off the coast of England, for the funeral of Alice Drablow, where he first encounters the WOMAN IN BLACK. Soon after his arrival, we learn intimately about the mysterious specter that haunts Alice Drablow's house and carries with her a curse from which even children are not safe.

This is a gothic novel set to the stage. It's a beautifully embellished adaptation that holds all the perfect elements of a scary bedtime story. One does however, have to be patient, as this script takes its time unfolding, and Emily Rankin's direction shows a commitment to the authenticity of the era and the geography in which the story takes place. No hurrying past the exposition to get to horrifying bloody chase scenes so revered in American horror film here. This is a play that unfolds patiently, a British ghost story that winds up slowly, and we are rewarded with mania that never tilts toward melodrama as played by Price and Badr.

Penfold Theatre Company has teamed with 7 Towers Theatre Company and The Scottish Rite Theatre to bring Austin theatre audiences the best of what each offers. The Scottish Rite is a classic old theatre, and having been built in 1871, is itself a perfect set for this play. The set design for the play within a play is as uncomplicated as it is spooky, and Christopher Conard knocks out the necessary visual tricks with flair and plenty of dry ice. It is however, unfortunate, that the sight lines in this venue do not allow for all patrons to see the far right and far left action, so make sure you get there early and pick a good seat for this general admission show. Sound is an important element in this production as well, and David Boss uses it beautifully to drive this ghost story to its frightening conclusion. Badr and Price embody the 7 Towers Theatre Company emphasis on fundamental and honest storytelling -- they stay carefully in their respective lanes, wound and taut until just the right moments, each of them giving a performance that is simultaneously meticulous and effortless.

Penfold Theatre always gives its audience plays that are among some of the most well produced in the city, and WOMAN IN BLACK is no exception. If your idea of celebrating Halloween season leans more toward the imaginative and cerebral, skip the line outside the House of Fright and head to Scottish Rite Theatre for WOMAN IN BLACK.


by Stephen Mallatratt, Susan Hill

Penfold Theatre Company, 7 Towers Theatre, Scottish Rite Theatre


October 13 - October 30, 2017

Tickets $18 - $30 plus service fees

Scottish Rite Theater

207 West 18th Street

Austin, TX, 78701

Photography by Kimberly Mead


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