KPBS AIRDATE: FEBRUARY 23, 2001
The woman in black. Sounds so mysterious. And, at several moments during the play, with the sinister sounds and eerie apparitions, you may just be a bit spooked. But this 1980s thriller, which has been running for 15 years in London, comes with the promise of a roller-coaster ride that ends with a hair-raising jolt. Surely they jest. There is such a transparent buildup, with underscored indication of the critical factoid that will be back to haunt the protagonists later, that the climax is completely and utterly predictable. In short, Stephen Mallatratt’s story, adapted from the book by Susan Hill, is aptly creepy and convoluted but the script is flimsy and ultimately ineffectual. Yet the Broadway-bound production at the Old Globe is spectacular.
The proscenium arch is redecorated with ornate gilt edging. The stage itself is rather sparsely appointed, two levels of cloth-draped furniture, that is disrobed and put to use whenever the story calls for it. The sound and lighting are outstanding; they do everything to enhance the fear and suspense, to make you shiver in your shoes. The creaks, the storms, the screams; the lightning, the moorish fog that floats out into the audience. It’s all deliciously discomfiting.
And, in serving the story, retelling the ghostly tale, theater is deconstructed. You see, years ago, Arthur Kipps had a dreadful, life-destroying experience, and he can’t let it go. He tells the tale to a man in a bar, who just happens to be an actor. The Actor convinces Kipps that the only way to expunge the memory and move on, is to tell it theatrically on a stage. Reluctantly, he appears at the theater, and the Actor coaxes him into the tale, as he plays young Kipps and forces the older gentlemen to take on all the other characters in the story, with a bit of a wig here, some leggings there, a massive overcoat over there. He shows Kipps — and the audience — how the magic of theater is created. Of course, he himself gets sucked into the story, until that oh-so-unsurprising end.
As confidently directed by Patrick Garland, Jared Reed conveys a self-assured insouciance as the Actor, and Broadway veteran actor/director/playwright Keith Baxter is a delight throughout, starting out fitfully, hesitantly, fighting all the way, and developing, with guidance, into a formidable actor himself. It’s a lovely unfolding, and his portrayals of the various classes of characters are a treat. The play is a wonderful showcase for his versatility; if only there were some payoff at the end. But even if the thriller itself is less than thrilling, the techwork and teamwork are nothing short of heart-stopping.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.