Stepping into the theatre it does not look like the stage is ready for a performance. Cluttered with rope, costumes, and props it looks more like the set has been struck than less than half hour from a performance. This is because the play, is a play within a play. The setting is an empty theater, in rehearsal for a performance. The play is Woman in Black.
A play within a play. Kipps has hired The Actor to help him put on a production so that he can tell his family and friends his own personal ghost story. The Actor decides it is best for Kipps to play the roles of the narrator and supporting characters and for The Actor to play the younger Kipps. Throughout the performance, the audience are silent witnesses to their rehearsal and their horrors.
The acting was superb. Initially I was unsure if the stilted, over the top speech that Michael Tezla used in the opening lines of the play were a sign of poor acting or a sign of a complete immersion into the character. Moments later it became clear he was fully embodying the character of Kipps. Michael seamlessly transitioned between Kipps and the characters Kipps plays, taking on dialects and mannerisms that made each character distinct. Creating rich, complex characters even with only a handful of lines each. Sid Soloman, as The Actor, compelled the audience to share his fears as he works his way through the play. We are carried on his journey, realizing with him, the true horror of the play.
The direction utilized not only the stage, but the entire theater to tell the story. The atmosphere of the play fit perfectly into the 100 year old theater. Choices that could easily had gone over the top were kept subtle, keeping the audience on the edge of their seat.
All of the technical aspects came together to tell this haunting ghost play at Virginia Stage Company. The sound design in particular made my heart race, made me hold my breath, and scream with most of the audience. The set, in it’s simplicity lended itself to telling a ghost story. As the lights dimmed I found myself jumping at shadows, wondering if I was just seeing the outline of a jacket or a ghost.
There were only two aspects that slightly disappoint. Throughout the performance the lights were a smidge too bright. At the beginning of each act the actors entered the stage and began with the house lights at full. Had the house lights started dimmed when the house opened, it would have been easier to accept it was an empty audience. With then at full, it was difficult to forget the rest of the audience for the first few minutes of each act until the actors wove their illusion. In addition, having the house lights at full encouraged the normal preshow and intermission chatter. This chatter died off in the first few minutes, but I still lost the first line of the second act due to audience chatter.
The rest of the lights could have also been dimmed to mimic the feeling of sitting around a campfire sharing ghost stories. With overly bright lights, and not complete black outs, a few of the scares were not as effective because the audience could see them coming.
The choice of the ghost’s reveal was the biggest disappointment. Rather than giving the audience a glimpse, and letting our imaginations fill in the rest, we are giving a very clear view of the ghost. It was a jarring moment.
In horror, less is more. Most of the production followed this to a T. Walking out of the theater, I was dreading trying to sleep. Afraid, I too would be haunted by the Woman in Black. I don’t think I was the only one jumping at shadows that night.