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Moor is Better

The Scottish ghost story gets a brainy makeover in The Woman in Black

A Nip of Courage: Tom Blair, left, and Tony Colavito tonic their fears in The Woman in Black.

By John Barry | Posted 11/13/2002

The Woman in Black

Stephen Mallatratt

The Vagabond Players' production of The Woman in Black begins inauspiciously. First, the house lights stay on. Then a large, bearded man who introduces himself as Mr. Kipps gets on stage and begins to read in a dull monotone from a large book. He's apparently an aging lawyer who wants to tell a few family members about a dark moment in his past. "It was 9:30 on Christmas Eve . . . ," he drones. If that alone isn't enough to put everyone to sleep, his delivery is rambling and stumbling. The theater begins to crackle with the sound of free candies unwrapping. People start yawning and sneezing and God-blessing one another, until finally someone gets up and announces that enough's enough. Arthur Kipps needs to work on his delivery.

Tricky. The Woman in Black is a story within a play within a play. At this point, a young professional actor (played by a not-so-young Tony Colavito) climbs on stage to coach Mr. Kipps (Tom Blair) in the art of staging his own story. When he decides that it needs to be dramatized, he offers to take up the role of the young Kipps--the story's central character. Mr. Kipps himself reluctantly agrees to take up the supporting roles--of the co-workers, solicitors, strangers, and innkeepers who Kipps meets in the course of his travels.

Finally, the lights go down. Now we're watching the play within the play. The young, soon-to-be married Kipps, solicitor unextraordinaire, goes out to a mansion on the Scottish coast to sort out the estate of a dead client, Alice Drablow. She died at 86 in an isolated mansion located on an island in the middle of the "glittering, beckoning silver marshes." As Kipps spends days collecting the papers and letters of the deceased, he learns of another legend, the tragedy of the Woman in Black.

The story itself is of the run-of-the-mill Victorian ghost variety, but that's not what drives the play. Playwright Stephen Mallatratt gives two actors--Blair and Colavito--a chance to develop and embellish their own narrative, acting out all the parts in the story. And then Blair and Colavito take the reins successfully. They make a solid team; their split-second timing keeps this play going at a good clip.

Colavito, as the younger man, exudes an energetic, slightly arrogant self-assurance that prevents us from getting bogged down in the marshes. Blair, meanwhile, spends the play shifting identities, re-creating characters that Kipps meets in his travels. In the role of the older Kipps, of course, Blair plays a bumbling actor who's a bit unsure about his storytelling abilities. But as the play progresses, Kipps the elder gets increasingly involved in his dramatic narrative, until he manages to juggle a dazzling repertory of characters and accents. And as Kipps and the younger actor grow increasingly involved in the retelling of the story, the audience gets drawn in.

Stage manager Harry Stinefelt's work is unusually elaborate, given the Vagabond's cramped conditions. The primary stage is spare but not bare; several props and six chairs are used to great effect. There is a stage behind the scrim, where, as the play progresses, we become aware of vague silhouettes, landscapes, and rooms. The lines between fiction and reality blur. And since the stage is actually the setting, the sound and light crew are technically actors in the play. They make their presence known and, with their subtle variations, give the characters emotional resonance.

The Woman in Black is a lot of fun, but don't try to dig deep. Actors change settings and identities so often that their characters don't have much chance to develop. The most realistic parts of this play seem the most contrived, and the surprises may tickle your fancy, but they don't shock. In sum, this is actually a play about acting and storytelling. Colavito and Blair use their skills to bring the people and landscape of this Scottish ghost story to life with a few pieces of furniture and some sound effects. That's no small accomplishment. You won't necessarily come out wanting to buy the novel by Susan Hill upon which the play was based, but if you do buy it, you'll want these two to read it aloud.

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