First Folio Theatre has dubbed their 2010-2011 season the “Season of Suspense.” After a triumphant remount of Executive Director David Rice’s The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story and a favorably reviewed staging of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, First Folio keeps the thrill ride on the track with The Woman in Black.
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The Woman in Black has been running at the Fortune Theatre in London’s West End for over twenty years now. It is a ghost story, a very English ghost story. Based on the novel of the same name by Susan Hill, The Woman in Black tells the macabre tale of London solicitor Arthur Kipps, who travels to the small town of Crythin Gifford to settle the estate of one of his recently deceased clients.
Kipps’s late client, Alice Drablow, had for decades been the only living soul to occupy Eel Marsh House just outside of town across the Nine Lives Causeway, a roadway only passable at low tide. Once the people of Crythin Gifford learn the purpose of Kipps’s visit, they give him a wide berth and precious little help.
Any telling of The Woman in Black requires a daunting amount of exposition. A daunting amount of exposition is going to bore any audience into either naps or open revolt. Playwright/adapter Stephen Mallatratt makes a bold and ingenious move: he creates a frame story in which an older Arthur Kipps, needing to tell this tale in order to purge it from his unquiet heart, enlists a young Actor to teach him (Kipps) how best to convey the story so that he will not bore his audience into either naps or open revolt.
In the course of this theatrical education, elocution lessons give way to a fully realized staging with the nameless Actor playing Kipps and Kipps playing all of the assorted characters he encountered in his experience with this unsettling affair. The Woman in Black is a piece of meta-theatre; the levels of what is artistic license and what is a true accounting of events, of what is the play and what is real life, are constantly shifting yet never in doubt.
Even with Mallatratt’s clever frame, The Woman in Black is a difficult play to attempt. Alison C. Vesely, Director of The Woman in Black and Artistic Director of First Folio, undertakes this high-degree-of-difficulty show and puts forward an Olympic production that is sure to garner high marks from even the most disagreeable of judges.
From the moment Joe Foust, as Arthur Kipps, begins to orate this woeful tale, he is perfectly awful, and awfully perfect. The poor, strangled voice Foust uses for Kipps is reminiscent of Thomas Edison’s earliest recordings on the tinfoil cylinder phonograph and Robert Benchley’s twitchy masterpiece The Treasurer’s Report. Joe Foust holds a masterclass in subtlety and depth — unhinged but not panicky, neurotic but not unglued, ineffectual but not weak.
The counterweight to Kipps’s quiet desperation is the unnamed Actor’s largesse with his craft. Kevin McKillip as the Actor makes it seem almost logical that Kipps is not deemed competent to play himself in the telling of the most dire series of events from his own life. The Actor is so slippery, in McKillip’s portrayal, that one hardly notices that he has hijacked Kipps’s story out from under him.
It may seem that McKillip has a much easier job here than Foust, but McKillip has to make it appear as though the Actor is carrying this play-within-a-play, and does so with great success.
Shelly S. Holland’s Lighting Design is careful and cunning, integral to this piece of storytelling. Scenic Designer Angela Miller’s set is a con artist passing for normal and average, but ready to pounce upon and bewilder the audience when the moment is right.
The newly re-formed Hammer Films has just produced an adaptation of The Woman in Black, to be released in movie theaters worldwide this fall, starring Daniel Radcliffe; the film is adapted from Hill’s novel, not from Mallatratt’s play, and has likely been optimized for mass consumption.
First Folio Theatre’s production of The Woman in Black is a delicious, handcrafted thriller of the classic style, at once dingy and resplendent. Even if your impulse is to wait to see what Daniel Radcliffe does with the role of Arthur Kipps, spoil yourself and DO NOT MISS this intricate, intimate production.