BWW Reviews: Keegan Theatre Haunts Audiences with THE WOMAN IN BLACK
When telling my friends that I was seeing The Woman in Black at the Keegan Theatre, their reactions were predictable.
"You mean that movie with Daniel Radcliffe?"
Let me nip that in the bud and say that, no, this most certainly was not the movie. The Woman in Black is not only a cinematic and literary piece, but also a play adapted by Stephen Mallatratt. The play recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary at the Fortune Theatre in London, running as a spooky hotspot for theater goers and tourists.
The Keegan Theatre tries their own hand at The Woman in Black under the direction of Colin Smith and Mark A. Rhea. The show features two actors: Matthew Keenan and Robert Leembruggen who play the Actor and Mr. Kipps, respectively. Another character lurks around the set dressings and fixtures, without a face and without a voice. You will not find her in your play program, nor at the curtain call, yet she is there. She is the woman in black.
Broken shards of light litter the floor like glass as they dimly illuminate what looks like an abandoned warehouse filled with forgotten goods: chairs, wardrobes, and knickknacks. The set is compiled of mobile furniture, barring a staircase and a small, red structure with a window facing the audience. As the lights come up and the two actors enter, The Warehouse quickly becomes a theater and the play takes on a meta-theatrical quality as the Actor attempts to bring Mr. Kipps-who assures the other dozens of times that that he is no actor and has no wish to be "an Irving"-and his story to life.
As the story begins, we are transported along with the Actor, who plays Mr. Kipps for the sake of the production, and Mr. Kipps, who plays the other characters that further the plot, to Eel Marsh. Eel Marsh House resides right outside of Crythin Gifford and along the Nine Lives Causeway, where the tide and the fog tells when you may come and go. It is there where the true horrors begin.
Both of the actors are superb, in no uncertain terms. Matthew Keenen, although an actor himself, plays the confident and didactic Actor with ease and clarity. He is not mired by the layers of characterization innate in this sort of story telling: playing a part who's playing yet another part. He does not get caught in the headspace of what he is attempting to accomplish. Instead, he does his best to tell a story-the story of Mr. Kipps-and emulates the emotions possibly felt by the man throughout his journey.
Robert Leembruggen's heart melting performance was seamless. He played many other characters throughout the play, although he too had to play these characters as if Mr. Kipps were actually the one being these characters. The pain and sorrow that laced with each character was especially poignant. It was easy to be, on occasion, distracted from the primary action happening on the stage to just watch him relive these memories. Although the story was scary and occasionally gruesome, his performance was enough to remind the audience that the tale was his own: a tragedy full of loss and regret.
In a horror film, lighting and sound designs tend to be the most important aspect. The terror comes from what you can and cannot see; what you can and cannot hear. The same principle goes for a stage play.
Michael Innocenti, the lights designer, uses lights to tell the story that the actors cannot fully tell alone. A particularly impressive lighting effect was the fireplace that appeared to materialize out of nowhere between two of the boxes near center stage. However, some of the best lighting moments were when there were hardly any lights at all, and the only things that we and the Actor could see as he walked around the haunted mansion and imagined grounds of Eel Marsh were in the small beam of a flashlight. Sometimes the lights were almost too beautiful, especially since this play was set in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, just as recorded sound was being utilized in theaters. The lights also added warmth which, while beautiful to look at, occasionally detracted from the stark story that Mr. Kipps and the Actor attempted to tell.
Sound-the thumps and creaks that cause an audience to jump in their seats-was slightly underwhelming. Whether due to the theatre's over-all sound quality or Tony Angelini's sound design was unclear. There were moments, however, such as when the stage was suddenly immersed by the sounds of a bustling, London street, that helped set the industrial tone to proceed the horror story that followed.
Although the performances and the designs of the play were eerie and spooky, there were moments that felt underdone. For instance, whenever the actors were moving-whether by train or by cart-there was no sense of movement. Yes, the audience is aware that the actors are supposed to be playing out the story, not actually living it, but there were some moments that would have helped sink the audience further into the chilling horror. Unfortunately, those small moments were missed.
This play provides a great opportunity to play with the horror genre and get the audience jumping out of their seats in fright. Instead, in this production there were only a few striking moments in act two that set the heart racing to any degree. The play became less of a horror story and more of a dark tragedy, which is also good but not what I initially thought of when going to see The Woman in Black.
A play can toy with a level of intimacy that a movie and a book cannot use due to the nature of their mediums. The Keegan Theatre is a prime spot for a play meant to scare and disturb, because each terrifying moment is not only experienced physically by the actors, but by the audience. The horrors are present, and there is no screen, monitor, or page to save you.
The Woman in Black will be running at the Keegan Theatre Thursday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. with a run time of 2 hours. For more information, please visit http://www.keegantheatre.com.
Photo Credit: photo by Cameron Whitman provided by the Keegan Theatre Company.