I should preface this review with the following: I do not enjoy being scared, I don’t scare easily, and I do not enjoy immersive theatre by any stretch of the imagination. By all reasoning, I should have not enjoyed the marvelous production of Pacifica Spindrift Players’ THE WOMAN IN BLACK. Thankfully for me, I did, and greatly.
I caught the preview of THE WOMAN IN BLACK (per the ardent insistence of the friend of mine who took us), on none other than the night of the Harvest Moon, in all of its full, autumnal glory. If you’ve never seen a show at Sprindrift in Pacifica, it’s a pretty spooky place on any given night of the year: nestled into the side of a hill and sequestered neatly in old and imposing trees. It’s home to frequent sightings of deer and coyotes, as well as the occasional mountain lion. Dark and scary woods, isolated building, with limited outside lighting-- that itself is enough to be spooked. I’ve always admittedly been a little more than spooked by Sprindrift, and last night was ripe for being spooked.
The premise of the show appears simple: a play within a play, in which an older man named Arthur Kipps seeks the assistance of a young actor to help him tell his story. It’s not made clear, entirely, what that story is. Kipps is a reluctant narrator, obviously haunted by (all puns intended) whatever had transpired all those many years ago. The young actor plays the Young Kipps, with Kipps playing all of the other characters and providing the narration. Together Kipps and the young actor recall the Kipps of youth, a junior solicitor, sent by his employer to a remote coast of northeastern England (and all its fog and wind-swept moors) to settle the final affairs of a recently deceased Mrs. Alice Drablow. While attending the funeral of the belated recluse, Kipps spots the chilling figure that will become known to both Kipps and the audience as the spurned Woman in Black. No one he asks is willing to give any answers or explanations.
And that is all you should know going into the show.
The less you know about the show, the better. (I went into the show almost entirely blind, save for knowing it was a ghost story). If you have not seen the film version, I would advise against seeing it, or reading any online synopsis of either it or the play itself prior to seeing this production. The more of it that is a total surprise, the better. Trust me.
One of the greatest aspects of the show is simplicity that’s not really very simple at all. All of the action propelled by only two actors. There is only bare set (one trunk, boxes, a few props), and clever lighting. Any costume changes are done with a single article of clothing, on stage. The sound design for this production in particular is genius. There is no reliance on gore or cheap jump scares; it is solely through the power of narrative and storytelling that the chilling tale materializes. Everything is done in much the style of old radio dramas, through the power of suggestion.
And, by God, what power that is. Both Doug Greer ( Young Kipps/ The Actor) and Eric J. Berglund (The Elder Kipps/ Narration) are utterly superb. Greer and Berglund are engrossing and compelling, --and, a testament to their prowess,-- never at any given point during the piece do you not believe them wholly and completely. With a mere change of a coat or the donning of an apron, Berglund has undergone a complete transformation into an entirely different person. Greer’s physicality is frighteningly convincing. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear Spider the Dog was indeed right on that stage in front of you. ( As a side note, should Pacifica Spindrift Players ever undertake the task of putting on a production of GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE, I think they’ve found their two leads, easily).
THE WOMAN IN BLACK is utterly terrifying. It is a gripping, unadulterated terror. It is a psychological thriller that taps very acutely (and intensely) into your primal fears-- fears you didn’t know you had. The opening of the show, the bickering back and forth between Kipps and the young actor, lulls you into a false sense of security. You wonder how something this funny could possibly be scary. It meanders its way along; it’s a slow build. But by the time it reaches the scene in the churchyard and the first appearance of the apparition, you're gripping your seat and/or the person next to you (in my case, I didn’t know her, but we became fast friends during course of the show). As afraid as you are, as gripped with terror as you are, there’s a good chunk of time spent grinning like a Cheshire cat, because what you’re witnessing unfold before you is so satisfyingly good.
If it weren’t terrifying enough, the intimacy of the Muriel Watkin Performance Space makes this particular production accidently immersive. The energy is intense, explosive, and practically in your lap, no matter where you’re sitting. Every creak is heard, every drop to the floor is felt. There is no sense of protection; the helplessness felt by Young Kipps is mutually felt by the rapt audience.
As for the eponymous Woman herself, I don’t know how many of you have ever had a ghostly experience of your own, but it’s exactly like how it’s depicted in this production: you see something lingering out of the corner of your eye, or catch a flicker of a figure you know you saw, but wasn’t completely there. Immediately thereafter comes that ice cold terror, your insides freezing and that visceral urge to bolt. Only, in this case, you can’t bolt, because you’re in the middle of a show (and you really want to see what happens next). They say that whatever terror, anger or sadness you feel in the presence of a spirit is what they felt in their last moments in life. Is that ever felt in this case, real ghost or not.
Clocking in at just a little over 2 hours, the intensity of the material betrays your sense of time. THE WOMAN IN BLACK is a wholly satisfying piece of theatre, and well worth a revisit or two. I will certainly be back before the run is out.
I can safely say that the four of us (my friend I went to see the show with and her two friends we met there, now irrevocably bonded through terror-induced-hand-gripping by the night’s end), left with feverishly racing minds, rattled nerves and quickened pulses, recalling our own ghostly encounters on the drive home.
Oh, and I think it’s worth mentioning: In addition to it being the night of the Harvest Moon, funny enough, it was also the 68th anniversary of Disney’s delectably spooky The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The film closes at the end of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow segment with narrator Bing Crosby’s shuddering, “Man, I'm getting out of here!”
My sentiments, exactly, Bing.
THE WOMAN IN BLACK has been superbly directed with a deft and sure hand by Mike Fatum, stars the incomparable Doug Greer and Eric J. Berglund, and and runs from October 6th to the 22nd.
Get your tickets at:
Photo by Lance Huntley
THE WOMAN IN BLACK
By Stephen Mallatratt
Based on the novel by Susan Hill
Melody Nicolette makes music as Le Bas-fond, and can be found just about everywhere @lebasfondmusic.