The Woman in Black – All Theaters Are Cursed
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
[Couple of notes here: We’re not back. Not really. Because I cannot manage to keep my mouth totally shut, I’ll review here and there, but TBO is not currently “active” as a site – meaning we are not reviewing regularly, keeping a staff, or accepting review requests. But this is a spook show, and it’s Halloween, and it feels like a good day to Rise from the Dead, so here I am. Also, there’s a lot of people associated with TBO and this production, including my own company (we helped with the special effects for the show, and that’s a conflict of interest, so I’m not going to mention them here) so as always, take a grain of salt where you need to. Off we go.]
After the show on Saturday, we got drinks and sat around and I asked everyone about a line from the play and made them talk to me (you may be shocked to learn that I bossily dominate post-show discussion about 100% of the time). As it turns out, everyone does indeed have at least one ghost story. Ask your friends, you’ll be amazed; black balls of energy whipping across rooms, disembodied voices, former houses of madmen. In contrast, The Woman in Black, by Stephen Mallatratt, is a fairly straightforward (one might even say slightly thin) tale wrapped in a much more interesting play-within-a-play structure. Even that might have gotten wearying had it not been for two delicious decisions made by director Patrick Gorirossi: his treatment of the audience and his insistence on including cinematic horror conventions while remaining cognizant of how to jump mediums. Oh, and also, he makes it really fucking scary. Like, seriously. It’s scary.
Woman in Black starts, as a lot of these things do, especially abroad, with a lawyer on a mission (see: Dracula). In this case, it’s Arthur Kipps (Sean Coe), who, as an old man, recalls a peculiar case concerning a deceased Mrs. Drablow. Old Kipps has hired an actor (Grayson Owen, who I’m going to need to see in something modern, and maybe American, soon before he actually transforms into the Beefeater logo) to dramatize the events that unfolded thereafter. Suffice to say that feminine rage, especially when it’s justified, is a force of nature. Owen and Coe are essentially playing the same person, which is fucking eerie, and Owen especially pulls off this odd, frustrated, push/pull between the two men quite effectively. See, Grayson Owen is the type of actor that has the genuinely rare ability to grab an audience tight and refuse to let them go. He’s handsome, but he can make himself seem…off…somehow, which works splendidly here. It’s like he could be anywhere from twenty-one to four-hundred years old. Remarkable. Coe is appropriately nervous and uptight, which adds to the tension Gorirossi deftly builds throughout the piece. About halfway through, the two of them click into a really weird, painful pas de deux, and you start to forget who is who and what exactly is happening. It’s foggy, you see. It’s haunting. It’s England.
Like I said, though, what elevates the whole thing from a fun activity to do around Halloween (which it is) to art with larger import is the vision-making from Gorirossi. Not all of his choices work, but they’re all interesting, which is much better. As an audience member at the theater, you’re not really supposed to be there at all (unless you’re at some kind of Pomo bullshit with everyone shuffling around trying not to look uncomfortable), and he pushes this fact to the hilt. I would go so far to suggest that there are several moments when it starts to feel that the audience is unwanted, maybe even resented. There are no programs, bright lights are shown directly into our eyes, the sound (Brian Kehoe) is uncomfortable and tinny. This is also reflected in the lack of a true set, bright overheads in use onstage, and plastic sheeting covering the lobby. Some of this gets too precious, but there was a moment where I wrote down “Who are the ghosts?” That’s great, come on, that’s just fucking great. Gorirossi is also a fan of horror films, and he clearly takes them seriously, which is the best kind of fan. Here’s where I need to be conscious of spoilers, but there are long hallways, furniture moving by “itself” and perfectly framed faces where no faces need be. I really liked the way he uses the entire space, and isn’t overly concerned with sight lines. Again, it doesn’t always gel (I’d cut the telegraphing green light) but he brings dimension to a piece that needs it.
BOTTOM LINE: The Woman in Black is a fucking fabulous ghost story. It’s fantastic in a lot of ways that don’t seem super obvious at first. If you ever walked through a backstage to get your coat while everyone was waiting for you outside, and lost your footing a little and couldn’t immediately make out where the door was, you’ll know what I mean. It’s directed with a gorgeous, thoughtful hand and performed with style and verve. And it’s gonna scare your fucking pants off, which is The Best Thing. Let’s all go on Halloween and see what happens.
Running at Fells Point Corner Theatre until November 5th.
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