Think of Edvard Munch's eerie painting "The Scream" and you get a pretty good idea of how Stephen Mallatratt's play The Woman in Black affects an audience. Ad Hoc Theatre's intense, ingenious production of Mallatratt's ghost story is truly creepy. No monsters leap out at you, but the central figure at the core of the story sends out tentacles that slowly squeeze the psyche. She is everywhere in that theater.
For those used to special effects in Hollywood horror flicks, The Woman in Black might at first seem fairly tame. Jerome Dunn's stunning lighting design, without which this play simply could not work, does mimic some kinds of motion-picture effects. But the play's ability to disconcert is rooted in much more primeval devices.
The story concerns a Mr. Kipps, a man heavily burdened with a dark secret who goes to a professional actor for advice on how to tell his tale before an audience. Kipps believes if he could just reveal the truth, he might somehow be relieved of his burden. Alas, sometimes when a person shares his troubles, he spreads them, too.
The actor tries to help Kipps but makes no headway at first--Kipps simply is no performer. So in the play within a play, the actor takes Kipps's place, while Kipps himself takes the actor's role and performs all the other minor characters of the story.
The action is set in a theater, but the narrative of the interior play takes place on a desolate English landscape where quicksand and marshes stretch out in all directions. There a lonely house contains the immortal remains of a furious woman. The ghoul has only one desire--and the aftermath of her malevolence is grotesque indeed.
Ghost stories in the Western tradition tend to be moral tales: The protagonist crosses some line he shouldn't and gets his comeuppance (Dickens's ghosts, for instance, always make some kind of point with their nastiness). It's the same with monster stories--don't tread on the prerogatives of God, they warn us. But ghost stories from non-Western or ancient cultures are frequently less concerned with teaching a moral. They're more concerned with scaring the dickens out of you--or the hell into you, as the case may be. And like many of these ancient tales, The Woman in Black assumes a view of the world in which evil is palpable and feeds off human misery. Though our protagonist doesn't listen to the villagers who know better (think of poor Redfern in the Dracula stories), he's basically not a bad guy, and he certainly doesn't deserve what he gets.
Why the characters of this story don't call an exorcist, burn the house down and spread salt on the ground is never quite explained. But one gets the sense that these villagers know nothing human can thwart the wraith's revenge on the world, and that's where the tale gets the creepiest. The ghost is scary because there is no answer to her ire--at least none provided by playwright Mallatratt. Hell hath no fury like this woman, and hell cannot contain the evil her distilled hatred would spread across the earth.
Much of the play's terror stems from just that sense of fatalism. But the way the story is revealed is every bit as important in terms of creating pleasant shivers. Every single time we see the ghost, she appears in unexpected places. She never speaks. Yet Rebekah Buric's presence is undeniably riveting.
James Gale plays Kipps and then the actor with inventive brilliance, creating a variety of characters (an innkeeper, a local landlord, a gruff servant, a frightened business agent) with equal ease and conferring well-defined traits and accents on each. As the tragic protagonist in search of salvation, Gale projects a profound sorrow and a touching vulnerability.
John Arp is a perfect match for Gale's intelligent style. Full of worldly goodwill as the actor, he is even more engaging when he switches over to perform Kipps's part. Witty, lively and full of natural affections, Arp's Kipps is always sympathetic, even when at his most foolish.
When we first meet Gale-as-Kipps, he is a man so weighted down with anguish that he could never be expected to re-enact himself at a happier time. That is why we need Arp-as-Kipps: We have to feel the weight of Kipps's ghostly encounters, and it's Arp acting the part that allows us to know the full extent of the ghoulish outrage.
There really is good reason for horror stories like Mallatratt's. They're fun because the emotional roller-coaster ride they provide is thrilling. But more important, they allow the viewer to safely confront his own fear of evil, to see it for what it is--a nightmare, dispelled by morning.
The Woman in Black, through December 8 at the Acoma City Center, 1080 Acoma Street, 296-3690.
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