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Thursday, April 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 43.0° F  Overcast
The Daily

THEATER

In The Woman in Black, Strollers and OUT!Cast Theatre bring a ghost story to life with brilliant acting

The Woman in Black features a ghost story within a ghost story.
Credit:Ben Wydeven
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What could be better on the first brisk night of fall -- and under a full moon at that -- than to head to the Bartell Theatre for a spellbinding production of The Woman in Black? Described as a "ghost play," it is known as one of the longest-running non-musicals in West End history. Strollers Theatre and OUT!Cast Theatre chose it well, just in time for Halloween (through Nov. 2). Filled with gothic underpinnings, this suspenseful staging is as much treat as it is trick.

The play is set on a sparse stage dressed to look like a common rehearsal hall. A plain trunk sits in the center, flanked by two wooden chairs. A door stands ominously at stage right, hinting at what's to come. With only these basic pieces, and a script Stephen Mallatratt adapted from a novella by Susan Hill, two actors (Sam D. White and Pete Ammel) enact the lion's share of the story.

When we first meet White's character, Arthur Kipps, he's come to the theater to work on his manuscript, a ghost story he's written to help him purge a nightmare from his past. He hires an impresario known as the Actor (Ammel) to help him thrill audiences and, in the process, exorcise his demons. The conceit of a play within a play goes on too long and lacks tension. But once the show gets rolling, there’s much to like in the grand, cinematic scope of the script and its prose.

What starts slow ends chillingly, as the actors travel to mythical Crythin Gifford, a town with a singular terrible problem. It's haunted by a ghost, and a vengeful one at that.

It's easy to see why the show has run as long as it has. The Woman in Black is more event than mere play. Sound effects, an eerily lit scrim, and heaps of fog seeping in from the edges all add to the hair-raising fear. But regardless of script or effects, the whole play would fall apart if it weren't for tour de force performances by Ammel and White. While Ammel plays two characters, White plays many, most of them with varying accents. (Kudos to dialect coach Susan Burleigh.) The actors move seamlessly between character changes, and I was reminded of a puppet show where you eventually stop watching the strings. Each time White put on a new character, I bought into it 100%. These were the two best dramatic performances I've seen all year.

The Woman in Black is essentially a story about grief and how it affects us, even into death and beyond. The titular woman is unable to grieve her own loss. Her spite at circumstances beyond her control and a moral question about exacting revenge haunt the subtext of the play. But don't let any of that stand in your way. The Woman in Black is a frighteningly good time.

Get to the Bartell, but whatever you do, stay away from that foreboding door.

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