PROVO — After making a transition from a less-than-perfect theater space, the Echo Theatre re-opened last night in their new and improved building with a respectable production of The Women in Black.
The Woman in Black is a successful horror play adapted by Stephen Mallatrat from a book of the same name by Susan Hill. It is to date the second longest running play in London’s West End, and has recently been adapted into a film version for the second time. The play explores the past of Arthur Kipps, (Jason Purdie) who is trying to tell his story to exorcise a ghost (the woman in black) from his life. Mr. Kipps invests in an actor (Joseph Skousen) to help him put on this performance. The play becomes meta-theatrical as the rehearsal begins and the actor plays the young Arthur Kipps, with the actual Mr. Kipps playing all the other characters and narrating the story.
The play within the play begins as young Arthur, a junior solicitor, is called upon to investigate the estate of a Mrs. Drablow, an old woman who recently passed away. Upon arriving in the town for Mrs. Drablow’s funeral, Arthur becomes aware of the town’s eerie atmosphere. Things become more frightening as he travels to Mrs. Drablow’s house in the middle of a swamp and tries to uncover the mysteries of the past. This leads him to the discovery of a haunting secret that he wishes he had never encountered.
Overall, I was pleased with the direction of the show. Director Ben Hopkin was able to make good use of the stage and created nice pictures on stage with the actors. However, the play had a slow start and the entire first act was fairly lacking in energy. Luckily, this picked up after intermission as the play became much more suspenseful. I also felt the woman in black could have been more ghost-like. Maybe it was due to the hard soled shoes the actress was wearing, but she could always be heard coming, making the effect not as scary as if she had just appeared, like ghosts seem to do. She could have had a stronger effect if she had been made more secretive and mysterious. The show was still thoroughly creepy though, eliciting many squeals and gasps from the audience throughout the evening.
Purdie did a magnificent job of switching though so many various characters throughout the show. They were all distinct from one another because of Purdie’s use of strong facial expressions and movements. This is an impressive task, and I was surprised that he was able to achieve this so well. Skousen’s performance was also fairly strong, with highlights being many moments where he displayed immense vulnerability and fear. The terror that Skousen was able to exhibit seemed real and genuine, which increased the fear I felt, too. My favorite moments were his frustrations with the locked door. But Skousen consistently kept tripping over his words. This may have been nerves, but it was so frequent that it made him seem somewhat unprepared. I also felt the chemistry between these two actors was considerably lacking. This did get better into the second act, but I felt myself wanting a stronger connection between them. I am hoping that this (along with Skousen’s stumbling) may have had something to do with opening night jitters and will get better over the course of the run.
Matthew Boulter’s set design was nice and simple, matching the dynamic of the play. The use of sheets over the furniture and the mismatched chairs and such helped to establish the spooky mood of the play. The see-through back drop was the highpoint of the set, and it was a delight to see the action on the other side of it. The lighting design by Samantha Layco also helped provide the mood, although I felt that towards the beginning the lighting changes were too harsh and abrupt; I would have preferred more subtle designs. However, like most of the show, the lighting in the second act was better, and it created a ghostly and unnerving atmosphere. The lighting also allowed for shadows to play in many areas of the stage, including on the backdrop, which was a very nice touch. Finally, the sound design by Spencer Carter effectively set up the ambiance of the performance, although there were elements that detracted from the mood. For example, I did not understand the point of the random voice overs. They seemed very unsystematic and did not make sense in relation with the rest of the play, as some moments were narrated and some used the voice over. There was also a mix up with one of the sound cues playing early. This was confusing to the audience as it was one of the voice over type, and did not mesh with the action at all.
Despite some of the imperfections that occurred in the production, the show does achieve an intriguing and fear-provoking production, making it fun for the entire audience. Having never seen the recent movie adaption and being unfamiliar with the plot, I found myself pleasantly surprised and startled by the daunting plot twists and uneasy feelings of fear. Beforehand I was afraid the scary elements would appear cheesy, but was very glad to find that this was not the case. This show is perfect for the Halloween holiday coming up, and I believe that it would provide a fun night for dating couples and even families. Of course with the chilling and spooky content, it may not be appropriate for young children.