The Woman in Black
Reviewed by Gray Palmer
Through November 4
In a notably gothic corner of North Hollywood (zombies are nearby), Theatre Unleashed is presenting The Woman in Black by Stephen Mallatratt, adapted from the 1983 novel by Susan Hill. This play is a commercial record-breaker in London, where the original production has been running continuously on the West End since 1989 — a commodity-cousin to The Mousetrap, playing since 1952.
The play has an Edwardian setting. It’s a ghost story, and a solid, workman-like iteration of the shuddery genre, with literary elements that can be traced to Walpole’s 1764 novel, The Count of Otranto, and social elements to the marginal status of Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, a gay coterie. Sexual politics is a hidden key to the horror.
The original producer, Robin Hereford, says that he commissioned the play as “a cut-price stocking filler” for his theater in Scarborough. He wanted a Christmas treat for his audiences, but he had a small, end-of-the-season production budget. Mallatratt smartly delivered a play with only two speaking parts, though some mayhem is provided by a third — a veiled and usually uncredited figure.
At North Hollywood’s Belfry Stage, only a tenth of the size of The Fortune off Drury Lane, we have a good example of close-up, theatrical sleight-of-hand. A very small space can become a breach in the world.
The story concerns the adventure of a solicitor, Arthur Kipps (the good Adam Meredith, very skillful with dialects), who has been sent by his firm to settle the estate of a recently deceased recluse. He travels from London to an ambiguously identified rural area on the coast, arriving just in time for the woman’s funeral, where he and his firm’s local agent are almost the only mourners. The agent refuses to go with Kipps to the woman’s house, but makes arrangements for a pony and trap to take him there.
Eel Marsh House can only be approached by a low causeway, and only at low tide. Kipps says, “I looked up ahead and saw, as if rising out of the water itself, a tall, gaunt house of gray stone with a slate roof, that now gleamed…” And that’s the beginning of his troubles.
Mallatrat’s adaptation of the novel adds a play-within-a-play frame. Kipps has hired an actor/manager (the appealing Spencer Cantrell) to help him tell his story. We are watching a stuttering set of rehearsals that culminate in a surprising run-through of the adventure.
Ghosts might be thought of as curdled time-refrains, caught, thickening, as time-stanzas pass around them. In this case, the ghost is a woman who was the victim of a terrible —and typical — social injustice. Will she be able to give a coherent account of herself? Will we be able to hear it?
Poet Joyelle McSweeney, a great writer of contemporary gothic, says of our forward-looking culture that “we live in a state of technophilia, held as an article of religious, political, and economic faith… But the gothic disagrees… [It indulges] a radical and de-naturalizing effect: to stop time and make it run backwards. So that primogeniture cannot control what property does. So that the ‘dead girl’ can have one more shot at ruining everyone’s life!”
Jacob Smith directs, good design is by Ann Hurd, good lighting is by Gregory Crafts, costumes are by Katie Sikkema (the apparition is turned out nicely), and sound is by Graydon Schlichter. Amanda Rae Troisi is behind the veil.
The Belfry Stage, Upstairs at the Crown, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood; Thu.-Sat. 8pm; through November 4. (818) 849-4039, theatreunleashed.org . Running time: one hour and 20 minutes with intermission.