Saturday, March 09, 2019

Great Staging Makes You Jump with “The Woman in Black”

The Woman in Black (Roger Mastroianni)
The Woman in Black
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through March 24, 2019

A tour from London is the special event currently at the Seattle Rep this month. It’s a celebrated production of The Woman in Black, and director Robin Herford recreates Stephen Mallatratt's original staging of Susan Hill’s book from London’s West End. The play is considered one of the longest playing productions in London history.

It is intricately staged, but could probably still scare the pants off people even if it dispensed with some of the multi-layered scenic crafting, because it’s really pretty much a ghost story told around a campfire. That’s due to much of the other tricks of theatrical staging they employ with loud sound effects and other sound devices, to great effect.

We begin in a bare room where an older man arrives, distressed, seeking the help of a young actor because he has a story to tell that is literally haunting him. He can’t sleep, he can’t rest, and he thinks that if he tells the story, it will finally free him. He, Arthur Kipps (Bradley Armacost), has written it all down and thinks he’ll read it to his family. He opens his thick book of writing and begins to read.

The Actor (Nick Vidal - ordinarily the understudy for that role, but who went on opening night) interrupts immediately to explain that Kipps’ reading aloud is going to bore his audience and they’d stop listening or leave. The Actor begins to try to show Kipps how he might better “act out” and describe his experience so that his audience will get the feelings that Kipps had as he tells the story.

The Actor then becomes Kipps and shows Kipps how to act out the peripheral characters that Kipps interacts with in the story. Kipps has no wish to “become Olivier” as The Actor says he’s going to help him learn to be, but little by little, Kipps does indeed get the hang of the acting thing and becomes able to turn into the various characters along the way.

It’s best not to detail much about Kipps haunted tale, because that’s what you come to the “campfire” for, but the press release says, “In the village of Crythin Gifford, the wind howls across the moors and fog creeps mysteriously around the town spires. At the edge of the village’s cemetery, young lawyer Arthur Kipps glimpses the figure of a woman, garbed all in black, and is drawn into Crythin’s cursed and haunted history.”

The beginning of the play is amusing and almost light. Then, as the story unfolds farther and farther, the spookiness grows. The two actors are solid performers who command their roles throughout. Interestingly, all four actors, the regulars and the understudies, are all based in Chicago, a hotbed of theater for many decades.

The stage looks drab and like an unused theater, at first. Later, lighting reveals much more, and those reveals are crucial to discovering the rest of the story. So, aside from sound (originally designed by Rod Mead and augmented by Gareth Owen), lighting, designed by Kevin Sleep, is a critical component.

If you like crisp and refined theatrical elements and great acting, and you’re of a mind to be quite spooked out, this is a great evening. I can assure folks who associated “scary” with gross and bloody elements that this avoids those kinds of things, if that helps assure you that you can go see this production. I suppose that’s some kind of reassurance…. Now I have to take a nap again because after this show, I’m having trouble sleeping…

For more information, go to or call 206-443-2222. 

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