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A period piece with old-school suspense

October 18, 2002|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | Special to The Times

If you're in the mood for a righteous scare this Halloween season, scurry through the gathering mist to "The Woman in Black" at the Road Theatre. There are no blood or guts or graphic eviscerations to be found here, only the kind of old-school suspense that relies on slamming doors, blustery winds and things that go bump in the night. If you prefer the gothic to the gory, this finely crafted period ghost story will put you so on edge, you'll likely require a full chiropractic adjustment afterward.

The longest running London hit since "The Mousetrap," Stephen Mallatratt's deft adaptation of Susan Hill's novel has been a hit in the West End for the past 14 years and counting. Hill's novel is a worthy source material, the basis for an underrated 1989 film version that is possibly one of the scariest made-for-television movies ever made. However, in Ken Sawyer's masterful staging at the Road, the theatrical version is even scarier than the film -- and that's saying something.

The story offers the classic elements of the genre -- a huge and isolated country house; a crumbling graveyard just beyond; a protagonist who ignores the veiled warnings of the terrified locals and insists on staying at the eldritch estate all by his lonesome. Mr. Kipps (Joe Hart), a solicitor, is dispatched to a remote seaside village to sort through the papers and effects of his firm's longtime client, until her death the sole resident of Eel Marsh House, a rambling residence accessible only at low tide. Transportation is arranged to the estate, but other than that, few are willing to go near the place -- with the exception of an invited guest, a mysterious woman in black whose identity remains obscure until later

That basic plot line is enough to give anyone a permanent bouffant, but Mallatratt's ingenious innovation of confining the action to an empty London theater -- an eerie locale perfectly realized in Desma Murphy's shadowy set -- expands the piece's possibilities exponentially. In Mallatratt's adaptation, the main events of the story are already past. Kipps has hired the Actor (Paul Witten) to help him rehearse a staged reading of Kipps' written reminisces of Eel Marsh House, a performance he hopes will exorcise his lingering horror over his inexplicable experiences there. For the purposes of the reading, the Actor plays Kipps, while Kipps plays the lesser roles. It's a brilliant device, a tour de force for Hart and Witten, who subtly calibrate the emotional rhythms, from the music hall broadness of the initial scenes all the way to the genuine horror and anguish of the denouement.

The play's suspense relies largely on the absolute precision of the lighting and sound cues. Sawyer and David B. Marling's sound and Robert L. Smith's lighting are first-rate, while Mary Jane Miller's costumes, David Burnham's scenic art, and Jeff Marsh's music complete the ghastly trimmings on this frightful, delightful treat -- a knee-knocker at Halloween.


"The Woman in Black," Road Theatre Company, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Also Oct. 23-24, 30-31 and Nov. 7, 14 and 21, 8 p.m. Oct. 26, 10:45 p.m. Dark Nov. 24. Ends Dec. 21. $20. (818) 759-3382, Ext. 2. Running time: 2 hours.

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