Sunday, March 17, 2019

Play:Theatrical Exorcism

The Woman In Black, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt, from the novel by Susan Hill, Directed by Robin Herford, Seattle Rep through 24 March.

Pity that I did not see this a few weeks back, when we were supposed to see it, but due to other obligations  had to move the tickets to this past Sunday. And it is a pity because I would recommend it, but it has but a week to play out.

And the play worked for me in part because the Lovely Bride and I went into it stone cold. There were no ads on classical public radio that I caught, no reviews that may have occurred in the press, no summaries that I had a chance to read in advance. And we were caught in traffic on the way up to the theater, so breezed in at the very last moment before the curtain rose, so there was no chance to find out quite WHAT was going on. Indeed, once I tell you, even in the briefest form, your mind will immediately start to work on how it functions as a genre  and as a theater piece, with the certainty of watching a movie's trailer and guessing spoilers.

You see, it is ghost story.

Ahah! I can see immediately that you know what I'm talking about. If there is a ghost story, there is a ghost, so we are already prepared for a haunting, and, armed with that familiarity. like seeing that trailer for a movie, you are already armed with assumptions and expectations. Armored against what is about to happen. Protected.

So, if you have any interest in the play (and you should - it has been running forever on London's East End), you should put aside this review until a later date - once you have seen it or let it pass beyond its current showings. Because it is a ghost story, and telling you that much changes how you see it. But I will tell you more.

The Woman In Black is adapted from a novel by Susan Hill, written in the 80s in the style of the "Female Gothic" novel - You know Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, that sort of thing. Moors and castles and secrets. Yes, now you have more armor, more than when I went in. It was a rather meaty novel, so turning its strengths on the printed page into results on the stage would be a challenge.

And they pull it off. Bradley Armacost is Arthur Kipps, who has hired an actor (known only as The Actor and played by Adam Wesley Brown). Kipps is a solicitor (ah, yes, it is a gothic, so England is its home) who seeks to exorcise a horrific experience in his life by sharing it with friends and family as a presentation.  Kipps is a horrible neophyte to the theatre, to the point of reading the stage directions. The Actor sees the chance of making Kipps personal story something that could reach out and actually engage with others, and embraces him, challenges him, and takes over Kipp's part in his history. So we have The Actor playing the younger Kipps and Kipps playing all the other roles in the play within a play.

Both actors are marvelous. Brown moves between being the theatrical life-coach for Kipps to Kipps himself, neatly and enthusiastically, while Armacost sells us at the get-go as a plodding dullard of a solicitor, who over the course transforms himself into all the people he met on the dogs-end of Britain. Both men sell their selves and we are comfortable with them. And comfort is a part of horror.

I won't go into all the details of the plot - I've given you enough just telling you it is a ghost story. But I will say that stagecraft is wonderful as well. Starting with a bare stage and couple props, the story consumes and expands the world into the wilds of England, such that we are totally taken into the Actor's statement of the theatre selling reality, such that play-within-a-play may as well be the play and be reality. The walls break down, as it were.

But I am interested in how to do horror on the stage. Adapter Mallatratt's presentation adopts novelist Hill's concept of the slow boil of horror, which in theatre has the challenge that the audience may not tolerate anything slow on the stage. Yet the play works as it slowly, slowly turns up the existential unease of book-turned-play-turned-personal-testament, and does so neatly. It starts from a place of comfort and familiarity and ends up breaking the man so you understand in part why Kipps is like he is.

There are a lot of tools at work here. There are jump-scares. There is humor. There are characters and mysteries and things left unsaid and warnings and foreshadowing. There are remote locations and things that cannot be controlled. There are extremely clever things done with lights and sounds. There are sudden frights that leave the audience laughing, but they become uneasy laughs, such that the final revelations are sufficiently scary.

The initiating incident of the play is in people telling ghost stories at Christmas (a British thing), but even telling people "I'm telling a ghost story" gives the audience clues about what to expect - spoilers as it was. Yet that is the way of talking about horror - we get insulated from it - it was a story about someone else, not anyone you know. It is an old book found in the library or some uncle's keepsakes that reveal a Lovecraftian horror beneath the sea or just someone telling a story. Blankets against the cold.

But I have said too much. If you have the chance in the final week, go see it - indeed, one thing I noticed was that much of the crowd was younger, or at least less-grey, than my standard Sunday afternoon matinee. Ignore the posters in the lobby until the intermission (sorry, the interval) and the summary in the program book.  So go see this play, but forget I said anything about ghosts. It's better that way.

More later,