Friday, October 31, 2014

"The Woman in Black": A Ghost Story in Search of a Campfire

Posted By on Fri, Oct 31, 2014 at 1:38 PM

click to enlarge James Dale Green and Gabe Beutel Gunn in The Woman in Black - PHOTO: CHASE GUSTAFSON/CHASING PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo: Chase Gustafson/Chasing Photography
  • James Dale Green and Gabe Beutel Gunn in The Woman in Black

Audiences can't seem to get enough of The Woman in Black. Or can they? The Supernatural thriller opened to rave reviews in London’s West End, 25 years ago, and has been in continuous production since. A film version showcasing the talents of Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe was released two years ago to decent reviews but considerably less enthusiasm. Last week The New Moon Theatre Company, in keeping with the troupe's wonderful tradition of telling scary late October stories, opened The Woman in Black at TheatreWorks. It's not the company's strongest effort to date,  though the well-used material remains, somehow, as fresh and earthy as a newly dug grave. If you like a good Halloween season ghost story, you probably won’t be disappointed by this interpretation of the spine-tingling yarn. If you're looking for a Fright Night roller coaster ride, full of shocks, bumps, and screams that well up from the bottom of your soul, that’s probably not going to happen.

Audiences who've been watching this season’s American Horror Story: Freakshow, may find the premise of this dark, two-man-one-ghost play within a play weirdly familiar. AHS has loosely adapted the plot to its own Edward Mordrake storyline, which finds a two-faced man rising from his grave to claim the souls of sideshow performers foolish enough to perform on Halloween. Similarly, The Woman in Black’s namesake character suffered humiliation and loss in life, but it’s the lives of innocent children her vengeful, restless spirit claims when she appears. It’s creepy stuff, in the psychologically compelling spirit of Jacques Tourneur horror masterpiece, Night of the Demon.

New Moon’s production has a lot going for it. James Dale Green and Gabe Beutel-Gunn are both strong performers and work well enough together in the roles of an older gentleman who's experienced unimaginable terror, and a younger actor who's teaching him how to loosen up and tell his story properly. This is a great role for Green, a familiar face on Memphis stages. He’s a haunted presence onstage, and especially good at shifting from character to character with little more than a shift in posture, or a slightly altered tone of voice.

New Moon and scenic designer J. David Galloway get extra credit for making the most of TheaterWorks’ black box. The performance space has been transformed to the point of being unrecognizable. It genuinely feels like you’re sitting in some tiny ancient, grubby proscenium theater in the English countryside.

For all of these good things, The Woman in Black never really jumps off the stage, even when its characters lean in to the audience. It seems as though director Justin Asher, the creative force behind last season’s successful production of Haint, has sought to establish a tone, and in doing so, may have lost sight of the play’s shape. The show drones on and on with a heavy, never-changing sense of foreboding that prevents us from ever being too surprised by any of the terrible things that happen. It’s a one note night of theater. Thankfully that one note never really sours. 

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