Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Woman In Black (play) by Stephen Malatratt

Just to be clear, this post is about the 1987 stage play by Stephen Malatratt, not the original 1983 book by Susan Hill, the 1989 television movie with the screenplay by Nigel Kneale, or the 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe. I believe the book is the source for all three, and the films are not based on the play.

The Woman In Black has been playing continuously in London since 1989, making it the second longest running play there - second only to The Mousetrap, which has been running since 1952 (!) By the way, I have seen The Mousetrap in London (back in 1999). Yes it is good. No I won’t reveal the ending.

The stage version of The Woman In Black is interesting in that it is intentionally minimalist. There are only two credited actors - more on that later. The setting is a theater, and while some props are used, most of the props are expected to be imagined by the audience, from the existence of a dog on down. There is no real “set.” Sound effects fill in the gaps. Even the way the parts are played is kind of unusual.

Let me see if I can coherently explain the framing device. Arthur Kipps is a solicitor (one of the British kinds of lawyers, for those not familiar with that system) who is trying to recover from a traumatic experience that happened to him when he was young. He seeks out the assistance of an actor (who remains unnamed) to help him “perform” the story for his friends and family, so they can understand what has happened - and so that Kipps can, he hopes, finally put his trauma to rest. The actor insists that the best way to do this is to have himself (the actor) perform the part of Kipps, while Kipps plays all the other parts in the drama. Yes, this is a bit confusing at first, but it actually works, and makes for an interesting interplay between the two.

Because of this framing device, the actor playing Kipps has to be an actor playing a non-actor acting multiple parts. Which isn’t easy. Kipps also has to develop from a rank amateur who is a terrible actor into someone who convincingly plays a whole range of characters, all while watching the other person play his own character.

At its core, however, The Woman In Black is fairly standard Gothic Horror - it uses all the proper tropes from the foggy and remote location in northeast England to the dead child to the lurid backstory. It isn’t exactly groundbreaking on plot or atmosphere, but done well, it makes for an effective play.  

Here is the basic setup: Kipps is sent by his boss to sort through the papers of a recently deceased client, the reclusive and mysterious Mrs. Alice Drablow. At the funeral, Kipps sees a mysterious woman in black - one that everyone else denies seeing. Later, while at the house out on the marsh, he sees and experiences more supernatural manifestations, which eventually lead him to the truth of the past - and a deadly threat. I won’t reveal more than that.

I saw this play in large part because my second daughter loves scary and suspenseful stuff and really wanted to see this one. I also took my eldest daughter and eldest son, as they were old enough to enjoy a scary thrill. All three loved it.

I have mentioned The Empty Space in many prior posts. It is, shall we say, a gem of our local community, and one of my favorite places to see live drama. Small size, modest budgets, but high artistic values and devoted actors and staff make for consistently excellent and imaginative productions. In this case, the acting was strong, and the staging made for great suspense and atmosphere.

The part of Mr. Kipps the person was played by Paul Sosa, who we previously saw at Cal State Bakersfield’s production of Pippin. In this play, he had a lot to do. The opening scene, where he is (very awkwardly) reading the introduction to his own drama is fantastic. You honestly could believe that Sosa cannot read a line to save his life. Of course, we know better, but he was entirely convincing at the beginning. Later, he has to cover a plethora of parts. This he does hesitantly at first, but gradually grows more and more comfortable with acting. This to me was the most impressive part of the play. To portray the development of skill and enthusiasm like that took superb control and focus throughout. Sosa has professional experience in Los Angeles, but is now teaching English at a local middle school. 

 Daniel Korth in character as Mr. Kipps, and Paul Sosa as Mr. Kipps playing "Keckwick," a local villager.

The other part was played by Daniel Korth, who I do not believe I have seen before. This was his Empty Space debut, and I do not recall seeing him anywhere else locally. Korth was apparently one of the founders of Pop Up Theater LA, so he too is a professional veteran. He also gave a compelling performance. His job required that he sell the horror and suspense despite the lack of spooky music or special effects. His voice, his body, and especially his face had to convey all that. And this while he was playing an actor playing the part of Mr. Kipps. So he switched in and out of character, so to speak. The rehearsals of the “play within the play” often went wrong when the “real” Mr. Kipps forgot lines, or fell out of character, so Korth had to go from portraying the terror of the moment right back into the actor trying to coach the non-actor. My kids commented that it must have been difficult to keep a straight face while doing all that. I agree. This is one reason I love live theater - particularly in a small venue where you can see every detail. There is something visceral about seeing good acting up close. 

 Daniel Korth and Paul Sosa

There is one other part in the play, but it is not credited. There is an actual “Woman In Black” in the play. She appears where her character should, but does not speak until the climactic scene. However, she is not “officially” a part of the play. She is not supposed to actually exist, and the fact that we, the audience have seen her is a portent of disaster for us. In the Empty Space version, they do not even credit the actor as “Vision” as she is credited in the London production. And honestly, between the makeup and the black veil, I am not sure who the actor was. Furthermore, she does not appear in the photo gallery at all, let alone with a tag. Her existence is a mystery, I suppose. Whoever she is, whether she exists or not except in our collective imagination, she played her part well.

The Woman In Black runs this Friday and Saturday, and then it is gone. If you live here in Bakersfield and need an idea for a creepy date, go see it.

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