My discovery of the Gothic novel during freshman year of College was pivotal and profound. True, from a young age I’ve loved horror films, monsters, the paranormal and all manner of superstition, but the unearthing of an era of literature devoted to spinning well-written scary tales and psychological thrillers was an exciting time for me. My beautiful college campus full of gothic architecture was rumored to be haunted, which only made the content I was devouring that much more engaging. Poe, Shelley, Bram Stoker, what a fantastic escape and a way to get a girl who didn’t really like to read to do so. While the original novel The Woman in Black was written in 1983 (not the latter part of the 18th Century when the genre really dominated) it was written in the style of the Gothic Novel (minus the romance). The story has been adapted into stage productions, TV shows and films and has survived (and in some cases thrived) all such translations. The Douglas Morrisson Theatre has taken on a new adaptation of the story and put it on their stage just in time to kick-start your Halloween season.
I’m at a severe disadvantage seeing this show since I know what will happen and mostly when. The surprises, no matter how visually effective and well performed are essentially… spoiled for me. This always presents a problem with trying to predict how an audience who is not aware of the twists and turns will best enjoy the piece. I always prefer to go into any show blind, but sometimes you don’t have that option. There was a lot more waiting for “that part” than there was hanging on every word, but I’m not sure that would be the typical response.
There is great chemistry and skill between the two male actors who take on all the major roles of this two-hour play. There is some witty banter and lovely “theater” humor interspersed between what I feel is quite a lot of exposition (well written, but indeed a lot of “talk” to be listening to and not reading yourself) as well as high-caliber visual magic. While the first 40 minutes are a bit of a slow burn and require a substantial amount of concentration to make sure you aren’t missing anything, it does pick up and impress in the second half. I’m always awestruck with the line load associated with a two person play and our gentlemen seem completely comfortable with their task from start to very abrupt finish.
Lights and sound play particularly essential roles in creating a mood and they certainly step up to the plate in this version. The way in which the “device” of sound effect (and lights and set/props) are brought into the storyline of this production is very clever and allows you to understand they aren’t intended to be 100 realistic, but at the same time, as the play progresses you start to notice them less as a gimmick and more as actual ambiance and “reality.”
As I said, having seen this before I don’t feel like I experienced this show in a comparable way to someone not familiar with the show and I don’t want to give ANY of that away in this review. This show certainly entertains. And, I do truly love the space (and they use it so well). I do like the production, just not nearly as creepy and compelling as it would be if I were going in fresh. While for me personally it’s a 3 ½ jewels, for the “virgin” eyes and ears, I’ll boost it to a 4 out of 5 in the review tiara for this spooky telling of an eerie gothic tale that pairs layered language of a novel with well executed stage spectacle. The Woman in Black plays at the Douglas Morrisson Theatre in Hayward through September 29th.