The McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton has a tradition of presenting a lavish production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” every holiday season. (This year’s shows are Dec. 6-24). And if they are looking for something to serve the same function every Halloween season, they could do worse than to bring back, annually, the show they are currently offering, “The Woman in Black.”
Depicting a story that takes a turn toward the supernatural in a foggy, isolated town in England, it’s the theatrical equivalent of a trip to a haunted house attraction. You know the scary jolts are coming, but that doesn’t keep you from being scared. I didn’t quite jump out of my seat, but I did rise an inch or two off of it at a few points.
It’s not a new play. It is, in fact, the second longest-running non-musical play in the history of London’s West End. Having opened in 1989 and having closed in March of this year, it trails only the Agatha Christie murder mystery, “The Mousetrap” in this category. It is written by Stephen Mallatratt, adapting Susan Hill’s 1983 novel; there also was a big-screen adaptation of the novel, in 2012, that starred Daniel Radcliffe of “Harry Potter” fame. (The play contains major differences from both the book and the film.)
The McCarter is presenting the original London production, with the London director, Robin Herford, still serving in that role. Three actors handle the two speaking roles: Ben Porter rotates between the two of them, with Anthony Eden and David Acton, at alternating shows, taking on the other one.
The setup is a bit complicated. Arthur Kipps has a spooky story in his past, that took place when he was hired, as a lawyer, to put the papers of a recently deceased widow in order, and had to stay at her empty house for a few days, in order to do that. A young actor agrees to help Kipps put together a theatrical version of it — working from a script that Kipps has already written — with the goal of later performing it for Kipps’ family.
Kipps is still haunted by the episode, and sees this — somewhat oddly, I’d say — as a way to purge it from his memory.
“This must not be entertainment,” he insists, to the young actor. “Those most horrible events will not be treated as amusement or diversion.”
Though Kipps is not an actor himself, the young actor persuades him to help out in the theatrical presentation. The younger actor plays Kipps as a young man, and Kipps himself plays a variety of other characters in the story.
Most of the play consists of them acting out the story, though they do break from their characters, at times, to discuss various things. Kipps, it turns out, can act quite well. But by revisiting the story … let’s just say some of the elements that disturbed Kipps so much in the first place come back into play, and the young actor gets a lot more to deal with than he bargained for.
The sound design, by Sebastian Frost, and the lighting design, by Anshuman Bhatia, are crucial in maximizing the scariness. Some of the sounds, in particular, would be quite scary on their own, with no story attached.
I can’t say there is a great or particularly original story to “The Woman in Black.” But that is like saying a rollercoaster ride didn’t offer sufficiently beautiful scenery. This is a genre in which the story is secondary. You’re there for the scares.
The McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton will present “The Woman in Black” through Oct. 29; visit mccarter.org.
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