A middle-aged man is alone on stage, reciting a paragraph of prose. The stage behind him has an unused, dusty appearance — chairs, a few other bits of furniture. We realize we're in a deserted theater. The man mumbles and hesitates, and then there's an interruption from the audience. A younger man bounds forward and starts giving directions. The first speaker turns out to be Arthur Kipps, who suffered a terrifying experience in his youth that has haunted him ever since; he has written an account of it that he intends to recite to friends and family in the hope of exorcising his demons. Aware that his delivery leaves a lot to be desired, he's asked the young man — a professional actor — to help him.
The dialogue between the two is witty and relatively lighthearted. They decide that the actor will play Kipps as a young man, while Kipps himself will portray all the other figures in his story. As the evening proceeds, Kipps, who swore he was no actor and muffed things up so badly at the beginning, gains confidence. He starts to play the various people his younger self encounters with increasing feeling and authority: Perhaps he's possessed on some level?
The Woman in Black was adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from a contemporary novel by Susan Hill, her take on the ghost stories that Victorians loved. Mallatratt's theatrical frame — the fact that we know the men are just acting out the story — is very effective; the line between reality and illusion keeps shifting, and you know that at some point Kipps's past and present will surely collide. The language and plot elements here will be familiar to anyone who's read Edgar Allan Poe. No one did Gothic horror better than the Victorians, with their obliterating London fogs, deserted moors, ghost-ridden old houses, taciturn locals who may be evil or just stupid as a stump, and allusions to the angelic innocence of childhood as a contrast to adult venality.
The Woman in Black
Presented by Modern Muse through November 14, the Little Theatre in Margery Reed Hall, University of Denver, 303-780-7836, www.modernmusetheatre.org.
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The wonderfully literate script captures every nuance of the genre — as well as its talkiness. Kipps, a young solicitor, is sent to the home of the recently deceased Alice Drablow to sort out her affairs. Naturally, her home is a gloomy Scottish mansion, completely isolated and surrounded by marsh and sea so that it can only be reached for a few hours each day. At Drablow's funeral, Kipps discovers that the townsfolk are deeply reluctant to discuss her life or death; he also spies a young woman in black, whose face is gaunt and skeletal, lurking among the tombstones. Of course, he decides that the only way to complete his business is to stay overnight at Drablow's house. Alone. The play moves deftly between Kipps's terrifying experiences and the consultations between the actor portraying him and the real, older Kipps.
I imagine that the University of Denver's Little Theatre in Margery Reed Hall wasn't Modern Muse's first choice of venue for this production. And the fact that this troupe is suffering financially — like most arts organizations — also means it couldn't afford the high-priced special effects that would really knock us out of our seats. But directors Gabriella Cavallero and Stephen J. Lavezza have made a virtue of necessity. In many ways, the creaky old theater provides an ideal locale, and the low-tech approach makes all the unexpected movements and sounds doubly heart-thumping. There's a lot riding on the ingenuity of the tech people — Robert Byers, lighting; Reuben Lucas, set; and John Rivera, sound — and also on the split-second work of stage manager Greg Melton and sound-board operator Benjamin Goldstone, not to mention Luciann Lajoie, credited with special effects/night shades. But the actors carry the heaviest load. Lawrence Hecht has a deeply natural, solid and believable quality as Kipps and does well with all the ancillary figures; Andrew Horwitz's glittering, sometimes almost manic energy provides a stimulating contrast.
How scary you find this Halloween offering depends on your willingness to succumb to the sense of dread that keeps creeping toward your heart. Be careful, however, if you go in search of the john during the intermission. You'll find yourself mounting a shadowy flight of stairs, turning on the landing in confusion, and wondering, Was that a shadow vanishing down the corridor...or something else? And just who was this Margery Reed?