Stage makes ‘Black’ perfectly eerie

SUNDAY, OCT. 15, 2006

To anyone who believes that live theater cannot compare with Hollywood for pure fright power, let me refer you to the Interplayers’ hair-raising version of “The Woman in Black.”

This Ron Ford-directed Edwardian-era ghost story uses tricks that can only work live and on stage. For instance, there’s the pale, silent woman in black who drifts wordlessly around the theater. She might be, in the darkened theater, standing right next to you.

Even scarier, she might at any moment be right behind you.

Now, I’ve been plenty scared in movies before, but I’ve never had to keep glancing furtively around to make sure that Jason or Freddie wasn’t lurking in the back row.

And that’s just one of the many clever bits of stagecraft used in this literate, subtle and altogether freaky British ghost story. This play, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from the Susan Hill novel, is one of those fortuitous works that perfectly nails a time-honored genre, this one being the haunted-house story. It has all of the classic elements: a gloomy, fog-shrouded mansion, an ancient tragedy, shrieking winds and a mysterious apparition.

No wonder this play has been running nonstop in London since 1989. It is justifiably famous for using sound effects, light cues and the audience’s imagination to conjure up a novel’s worth of images: everything from a busy London street to a foul, foggy salt marsh.

This Interplayers production also features an exceptionally fine cast of two: Damon Abdallah and Damon Mentzer. They have all of the tools to pull off this show: The ability to change voices and characters on the spot, a facility with script interpretation and line-reading, and the training to handle the Conan Doyle-like language with perfect British and Scottish diction.

On top of all that, they have marvelous chemistry, like a well-rehearsed jazz duo: The Two Damons.

That chemistry is key, because the play’s trickiest conceit is that Arthur Kipps, played by Abdallah, has hired an actor, played by Mentzer, to re-enact the horrible events at the house on Eel Marsh. So, in the “performance” that we see, the actor is actually playing Kipps, while Kipps plays every character except himself.

It’s a bit complicated, but it doesn’t matter much. What matters is the story they tell about a terrible visit to that marsh and its tragic repercussions.

There is no blood, no gore, nothing resembling movie-style action. But it has the atmosphere and eerie suspense of Sherlock Holmes and the psychological chills of Henry James.

Ford, who also makes horror films, does a fine job not just with the scary moments, but also with the visual imagery. A spinning wheel, for instance, becomes a bicycle wheel when its shadow is projected on the back wall.

This version fell short of Interplayers’ 1998 version in only one technical detail. Enough light leaked in from the exit signs and light booth to keep the theater from becoming fully dark. The alert theatergoer could see the woman in black’s exits and entrances. In the 1998 version, there were times when she seemed to appear by magic.

I’m not complaining about this, mind you. I, for one, did not want it any scarier.


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