In order to get to WildClaw Theatre's production of The Woman in Black, the audience must walk through a series of long hallways on the Den Theatre's second floor. Rather than treat this trek as an inconvenience, WildClaw has turned it into an opportunity. Slanted and broken mirrors line the long walk into the theater, setting a tone of distortion and anxiety even before the play begins.
The play itself, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill's novel, takes place in Victorian London, where an unassuming lawyer (Robert Koon) haltingly recites a dreary piece of prose — his own diary. He is interrupted by a thespian (Priyank Thakkar), who coaches him on his presentation. The two men are attempting to present the harrowing account of Mr. Kipps' ghastly experience with the supernatural some years ago, thereby banishing his lingering nightmares and regrets.
Over the course of 90 minutes, the Actor and Mr. Kipps reconstruct the gruesome tale. Their framing intercuts with a classic ghost story that includes all of the classic trappings of Victorian horror: isolated pastoral estates, ominous weather, unfriendly townsfolk, and children in peril. Soon, the Actor finds that it is easiest to play Mr. Kipps himself, as Mr. Kipps acts out all the other roles in his story. Robert Koon gets to show off his excellent versatility and skill with dialects as he digs into these character roles, imbuing each of them with lived-in humanity while keeping them distinct. Priyank Thakkar's accent work is not always strong, but his expressive eyes show palpable fear, and his precise physicality helps craft the reality of the minimalist dramatization.
Elly Green's resourceful staging makes use of every inch of John Wilson's clever, compact set. As the audience is seeing only a rehearsal of Mr. Kipps' eventual presentation, a large steamer trunk serves as a writing desk, a horse cart, train seats, and more. Despite the creative minimalism of the play-within-a-play conceit, the production values are robust. There are enough jump scares to satisfy any horror aficionado, but they are paced well enough so as not to wear out their welcome. The transitions between framing device and the frightful tale of Eel Marsh House are clear and flow well, aided by Emma Deane's lighting design.
Much fuss is made by the Actor and Mr. Kipps over the newfangled "recorded sound" that bolsters their performance, and for good reason. Sarah D. Espinoza produces an outstanding soundscape that lives up to their acclaim, and each creak and screech is precisely deployed. One dropped cue could snap the audience out of its trance, but the expert timing is wholly immersive.
WildClaw's production of The Woman in Black keeps the audience suspending its disbelief, an absolute necessity for horror. The program states that their mission is to "bring the world of horror to the stage," and in this case, at least, they have certainly succeeded.
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