Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Review: (Toronto) The Woman in Black

(photo by Seanna Kennedy)

To my horror, what appeared?
Woman in Black receives strong presentation
by Jason Booker

The Woman in Black, an adaptation by Stephen Mallatratt of Susan Hill’s novel, remains one of the longest running plays in London to this day. With only three actors in the show and a minimum of set and costume, it must be a simple show to run. Especially if the audience doesn’t yet know the twist – which isn’t contained in the recent Daniel Radcliffe film, nor the original book.

The play opens with a frame for the story to come: an extended dialogue between Mr. Kipps, who has written down his ghost story and wishes to exorcise it from his psyche in front of an audience of friends and family, and the actor/director whom he has hired to advise him on how best to spin the yarn. Unfortunately, there are only so many times that an audience can tolerate being vaguely told that a play is horrifying before simply wanting to scream get on with it. But that is a quibble with Mallatratt’s overwritten script, which takes a while to get started, uses a few too many words – particularly ones that are too eloquent – and which may have benefited from compression into one 90 minute act.

Specific to this production though, directed by Alan Kinsella, the differentiation between the world of the story and the reality of the actor and his employer (who takes on all the smaller roles that Kipps encounters on his journey to organize an elderly woman’s haunted estate) seems muddy at best, a little slow and quite dull. Kinsella obviously felt that this boredom might create sharper contrast for the thrills and chills later on – but only if the audience is still awake for Act Two. He also manages to save all the surprises for the play-within-a-play instead of using the men’s first entrances to foreshadow the genre.

That said, the scary moments are, generally, scary and effective.

Claire Acott’s Woman in Black (no spoilers there, she is the only woman in the cast after all and really, what else would she play?) appears out of nowhere due to some clever trickery and wise costuming choices by Kathleen Black. J.T. Pickering’s sound design spooks when least expected and Chris Malkowski’s lighting often misleads the eye, focusing attention away from the stage magic until just the right moment. Some of the lighting transitions don’t feel as sharp as this filmic adaptation requires and occasionally the sound becomes tinny through the lacklustre sound system – but at least one jump-out-of-your-seat moment can be guaranteed for neophytes to the story.

Andrei Preda ably commands the stage as the dramatized version of Kipps, though his role as the actor comes off as too pretentiously stereotypical. Adrian Griffiths manages to clearly denote the changes between characters through voice and stature, without much help from the costume department.

This production of The Woman in Black sadly opened after Halloween, missing out on a great opportunity for midnight shows and seasonal marketing. However, while the production isn't flawless and won’t likely run as long as its British incarnation, it might provide enough of a tease for Toronto thrill-seekers until the next illusive spectre presents itself.

The Woman in Black runs Nov. 21 - Dec. 1 at Lower Ossington Theatre

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