Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Oct 22, 2013
04:00 PM
Stage Write

Spooky Sounds and Sights

Spooky Sounds and Sights

PHOTO BY BEN WYDEVEN OF MAKE SHIFT MEDIA GROUP

Is that a shadowy figure? It might be, as Pete Ammel and Sam D. White discover in Strollers Theatre's production of 'The Woman in Black.'

“One must appreciate the magic. One must not ask how the magic exists.”

It’s a minor line, a theater cliché uttered by a nervous and giddy actor who’s just been unsettled by the black-clad figure he’s just seen stalking across the stage; he thinks the older man whose script he’s helping to hone has staged a little surprise for his benefit.

Man, is he wrong.

But the line’s also an apt encapsulation of Strollers Theatre’s super-spooky staging of The Woman in Black, playing in the Bartell’s Drury Theater through November 2. A mere handful of actors, props and sound/special effects combine to create a desolate island, a haunted mansion and some truly spine-chilling theater. Let’s just say that appreciating the magic isn’t hard.

Even if you haven’t seen the big-budget Hollywood version, the story sounds like the simple stuff of stock horror—unlucky solicitor gets sent to haunted mansion, encounters tragic/spooky spirit, investigates and suffers the cost of his discovery. But Stephen Malatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s classic horror novel opts for a far more deft play-within-a play device. When we first meet Arthur Kipps, the doomed solicitor, he’s an old man, clutching a windy story he’s dying to share with the world. (He’s also played by Sam D. White.) Within a few minutes, the actor he’s hired to help him stage it (Pete Amell) has morphed into a younger version of Kipps and is being drawn into the mysterious web of Alice Drablow, also known as the Woman in Black. As the play progresses, events bounce back and forth in time, adding both a sense of intrigue and dread.

Strollers’ staging is a great example of less is more, demonstrating how something as simple as a well-timed sound effect can scare the bejesus out of you. Those effects, rented from the original West End London production and amplified for our scary benefit, totally deliver the goods: Thumping heartbeats, screeching birds, and a few well-timed otherworldly shrieks build a palpable and startling suspense no props or costumes could manage. Not that there are many props to begin with; the audience is asked to imagine that a trunk and chairs can be a horse and buggy, and that a lot of things that aren’t there actually are. It works with everything except the invisible dog in the second act—the play’s only step over that ever-so-thin line between horror and nervous comedy.

It’s shocking how skillfully White steps away from his primary role to melt into the play’s various bit parts—Kipps’s oily boss, a local official who knows too much, a gruff and mysterious coachman—lending each a distinctive feel. Both Amell and White are terrific at nailing the pace of the play’s narrative, sometimes delivered by the older Kipps from the edge of the stage, sometimes in first-person by the younger Kipps.  

Sounds are a big piece of the magic here, but so are the sights. Director Steve Noll’s staging makes amazing use of images projected on a scrim to evoke an office window, a misty graveyard, a gaunt tree backlit by a full moon, and the Drablow’s spooky manor at Eel Marsh. The moments when that scrim becomes translucent are some of the play’s scariest. As for the Woman in Black herself? The play’s tagline suggests you should pray you don’t meet her, and Noll’s careful to follow that advice, parsing her chilling appearances out like drips from a pitch-black faucet. By the time she finally stops stalking and makes her move, you may wish she’d stayed in the shadows of that desolate manor.

The Woman in Black runs through November 2 on the Bartell Theatre's Drury Stage. Visit strollerstheatre.org for more information. 

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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