Stage Review: The Woman in Black at the Belfry

Who needs haunted houses and theme parks when you can get all the Halloween horror you need in this subtly scary theatrical ghost story?

The Woman in Black, currently on Theatre Unleashed's Belfry Stage in North Hollywood, offers enough spectral shivers to stand on its own as a horrifying Halloween entertainment, but it's even richer when seen in the context of the Victorian ghost story, which it evokes so admirably. The two-actor play begins by referencing the British tradition of telling ghost stories during Christmas - a tradition well known to fans of M.R. James, who composed his excellent ghost stories specifically to share friends round the fireside while the winter winds raged outside at Cambridge. More specifically, The Woman in Black's opening echoes that of Henry James' haunting novel The Turn of the Screw, which begins with imaginary Christmas ghost stories prompting a character to relate a true one. The point is that truth is infinitely stranger and more terrifying than fiction, even if the "truth" in this case is part of the fiction, and it's to the play's credit that it works so hard to blur the distinction, erasing the comfort zone separating story from teller and teller from listener.

The Woman in Black Review: How to Tell a Ghost Story

The central conceit at first appears to precious: Having been jolted by hearing fictional ghost stories, a lawyer named Kipps (Adam Meredith) wants to purge an unpleasant memory by telling it aloud to family and friends. He seeks the help of an Actor (Spencer Cantrell), who coaches him on performance and delivery. Kipps is initially wary of turning his tale into a mere entertainment, and he doesn't seem up to the task of holding his audience's attention. Initially, his story emerges in bits and pieces as the Actor interrupts to give advice. Eventually, the Actor takes over the lead role, with Kipps taking the supporting parts, and the story plays through as a final dress rehearsal.

It turns out that Kipp was sent by his law firm to catalog the papers of a recently deceased client. The locals in the small village don't particularly want him there, and the client's isolated old house is no more inviting. Kipps begins to see things at night that have him questioning his senses and eventually concluding that the place is haunted by a mysterious Woman in Black (Amanda Rae Troisi).

With two actors playing (almost) all the roles, Stephen Mallatratt's adaptation of Susan Hill's novel echoes Jeffrey Hatcher's stage version of The Turn of the Screw (reviewed here); however, The Woman in Black shows us considerably more than Hatcher's play ever did. Director Jacob Smith stages the action in what initially appears to be an empty, black set, but as with the story itself, disturbing details slowly come to light. For most of the running time, the title character appears in fleeting glimpses, emerging from the shadows only long enough to make her presence known. Except for trashing a hidden room in an explosion of rage, she does nothing overtly threatening, but eventually it is revealed that her mere appearance is a harbinger of tragedy, which can land in unexpected places, as the characters learn to their regret.

The Woman in Black Review: Slow Burn to a Big Scream

In keeping with the tradition of Victorian ghost stories, The Woman in Black introduces the characters and establishes their normal lives before every so gradually introducing the supernatural element - the screw turns slowly but inexorably toward the climax, dropping subtle hints that pay off with big shivers later. A scream that erupts before the first act break and some stuttering lighting effects near the conclusion may not sound like much on paper, but they thrill on stage because they release the tension so carefully built up by what preceded.

Meredith and Cantrell handle the acting challenge expertly, shifting effortlessly between their characters' "real" personalities and their stage personas. The apparently eccentric choice of having the Actor take over Kipps' role turns out to be a clever ploy, hinting at a merging of roles that adds an extra turn of the screw - though perhaps a ticking time bomb would be a better metaphor. The play sets the counter ticking in the first act with a subtle surprise, which detonates at the finale. Whether or not you see the final shock coming, the explosion will leave you to wonder whether telling a story purges or perpetuates the horrors whose fallout it was meant to erase.

The Woman in Black continues on the Belfry Stage, upstairs at the Crown Theatre on October 27, 28, 30 and November 2-4; performances start at 8pm. The address is 11031 Camarillo Street in North Hollywood (next to St. Matthew's Lutheran Church). The website is: theatreunleashed.org

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.