The Woman in Black – Theatre Review: Mesa Encore Theatre’s Black Box Theatre, Mesa

Those who follow theatre should be aware that, for whatever unexplained reason, the longest running play in London’s West End is the Agatha Christie murder mystery The Mousetrap. But what they may not know is the name of the play that currently ranks as the second longest. It has some years to catch up on The Mousetrap’s continuing sixty, but the eerily spooky mystery, The Woman in Black, has packed houses since 1987 where it began a three week run at playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s Scarborough theatre as a low-budget fill-in, then moved to the Lyric in London’s Hammersmith, then finally transferred to the West End where it has haunted the Fortune since 1989.

In keeping with the spirit of the original low-budget, three week Scarborough production, Mesa Encore Theatre’s presentation of Susan Hill’s horror novella opened this weekend not at its regular Mesa Arts Center location but at its smaller, more intimate Black Box location, one mile further east on Main Street. Considering the play’s construct of a play within a play, one that’s in preparation for a future performance for family and friends, the Black Box is a good, informal fit.

There’s little to talk of in terms of set. The brick wall backing is painted black, as is the base of the slightly raised platform that acts as a stage. Other than a few white sheets that cover a writer’s bureau and some boxes of documents that will be later uncovered, plus a door stage-left that we’ll learn leads to a child’s nursery, there’s no other color of which to speak. And that’s pretty much how that Scarborough production presented things.

The tradition of Gothic storytelling remains intact in playwright Stephen Mallatratt’s faithful adaptation, but it comes with a twist. As there was no money in the budget for that 1987 opening, Mallatratt kept costs to a minimum by writing the play to order. There would only be two actors employed, an empty stage, and no real effects other than sound. But by presenting the involved plot within such a limited and obviously artificial frame, he came up with the idea that what audiences were watching wasn’t simply the unfolding story of a ghostly woman dressed in black, but a play in rehearsal for a later, one-time only showing. A bench becomes a moving pony and trap, then later a vehicle, and two chairs become seats in a train carriage.

Arthur Kipps (J. Kevin Tallent) who we presume must be somewhere in his mid to late fifties, has written a manuscript telling the story of something disturbing that happened to him thirty years ago when he was a young lawyer. When the production begins, he’s reading the script aloud, including both dialog and stage direction, but without feeling or any sense of character. There’s a moment of adjustment required when it’s not altogether clear what’s occurring. Then from the audience, a younger man, a more experienced actor (Tim Fiscus) leaps from his front row seat and attempts to give direction. After Mr. Kipps declares, “I am not an actor,” a point all too painfully clear to the younger man, in order to get through the reading, they swap roles. The younger, more experienced performer will be Kipps, and the older gentleman will take on all the other, smaller, supporting roles. And so begins the play.

The story is what you know from either the book, the BBC TV production that you may find on DVD if you hunt it down, and the hugely successful 2012 film that put the classic Hammer Horror productions temporarily back in the limelight. Each telling tweaked the story and added elements befitting its forum, but the bare-bones play is probably closer to the book than anything else. Kipps, the young lawyer from London, travels to the small, country village of Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of a client, and to sort through the files and documents of her large, dark, empty house by the marsh. What he discovers in the files, what he sees at the funeral, and what it is that’s sitting in that creaking rocking chair in the nursery, will change his life. Writing about it, thirty years later in a manuscript acts as a form of personal exorcism; he needs to get it out of his system once and for all, but even then, as revealed in the final moments, there’s one last twist that no one saw coming.

During the show’s Friday night opening performance, a technical lighting difficulty occurred in the first half that hit the second even further, but while some audience members may have noticed, it’s possible that the majority did not, and that’s for one very good reason; the focus of attention remained solely on the performances of the two actors, both so accomplished with their interpretations that incorrect lighting cues, or their absence, were of little consequence.

With just a change of hats, a glare, a glance, and a slight alteration of an English country accent, Tallent (which he assures us in the program notes really is the family name) in an instant became among many others, a passenger on a train, a local landowner, and a driver to an old-fashioned pony and trap.

As the younger, more experienced actor, Tim Fiscus, who scored so well as the nerdy lead in last year’s Hale Centre Theatre’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone, takes full control, transporting us to the brooding, atmospheric setting of the house on the marsh with impassioned descriptions of what he’s seeing, feeling and experiencing to the point where we can practically see and feel the same things ourselves. Under director Virginia Oliveri’s guidance, miming the rescue of a small dog called Spider who is drowning in the marsh becomes as much a nail-biter as if we were watching the real thing.

The show would have benefited from the fog machine effect, something to illustrate the eerie look of being cut off in the marsh from the rest of the mainland, as is often used in subsequent productions, though logistically, because of the Black Box theatre setup and its limited wing space (there is none) it’s likely that the theatrical illusion would have been less effective by having to see the machinery at work. However, Emma Walz’s atmospheric sound design and its timing is excellent. Off-stage voices bounce from one stereo speaker to another, while whips crack, crows caw, and busy street sounds fill the house.

With Halloween on the horizon, Mesa Encore Theatre, with Oliveri at the helm and two experienced performers working well together, delivers its own treat with minimal tricks, but with a lot of creativity born of a production with practically zero in the budget. In its heyday of broadcasting dramas, radio was usually considered the theatre of the mind, but The Woman in Black cleverly employs those same imaginative qualities to the Black Box Theatre where sound and suggestion create the illusion that you’re there, in the house on the marsh. It’s very effective. And with a woman dressed in lacy black silently hovering in the background, it’s also effectively spooky.

The Woman in Black will continue at Mesa Encore Theatre’s Black Box Theatre at 933 East Main Street until October 22

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