BWW Review: THE WOMAN IN BLACK is Halloween Scare Fare at Pasadena Playhouse
One of the things theatre does extremely well is create something out of nothing. That's pretty much the key to Stephen Mallatratt's adaptation of Susan Hill's gothic ghost story THE WOMAN IN BLACK, which ushers in the Halloween season at Pasadena Playhouse.
Drawing its inspiration from Shakespeare's "O for muse of fire" prologue from Henry V -- which asks the audience to visualize such monumental sights as the battle of Agincourt upon the "vast fields of France" -- it also invites the audience to use its imagination, this time to create a spooky old house on a deserted stretch of road where strange things happen. Those events are related in a play-within-a-play by a man whose experiences there when he was younger have given him far more sleepless nights than he is able to bear.
It is the early 1950s and Arthur Kipps (Bradley Armacost) has hired an Actor (Adam Wesley Brown) to coach him so he can tell the tale to his family and hopefully divest himself of the responsibility of carrying it after so many years. They rehearse a series of scenes that show Kipps to be a terrible actor no matter what kind of direction he is given. After what seems like an eternity, the two eventually decide to act out the story with the Actor playing Kipps and Kipps playing the rest of the characters.
From this point forward, the play becomes typical scare fare with the mysterious woman in black materializing when least expected and other spooky effects waiting for just the right moment to make the audience jump, which they do. Nervous laughter breaks the tension throughout and, for all intents and purposes, the production accomplishes its goal. It isn't a psychological thriller per se however it has been running continuously in the West End for the last thirty years, so there is no denying the popularity of its brand of horror.
Still, a great deal of the time I had no idea what those around me were screaming about. Perhaps in a more intimate theatre space the psychology of the story might have had a bigger impact but the cavernous Playhouse has a way of creating distance between the actors and the audience, and overcoming it requires work. Both Armacost and Brown are seasoned actors who are technically proficient but their presentational style, presumably as directed by Robin Herford, did not bridge that gap.
Bottom line: Those who thrive on the jump scare experience will love it and will likely get the most out of the production. You'll have to wade through a tedious opening half hour of setup but once the real story gets underway it delivers some creative effects, just in time for Halloween.
Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni