“Woman in Black” Set Free by Theatre Unleashed

I have not been a fan of The Woman in Black. Despite a friend’s enthusiasm, the 1983 novella failed to hold my attention. The 2012 film felt even less compelling.

Yet a stage version has been running on London’s West End for almost 30 years now. And after seeing Theatre Unleashed’s new production, I understand why.

Playwright Stephen Mallatratt (Coronation Street, The Foryte Saga) knew how to tell a story onstage. Turning the ghost tale into a two-hander is a stroke of theater genius — it locks us in a room with just these two people. And once we know each will suddenly turn into other characters, we’re on guard, our eyes on the details, holding our breath. That level of uncertainty, that tension, is what makes a thriller work. (Not jump-out scares, which were as ubiquitous in the film as flowers at a funeral.)

Spencer Cantrell, Adam Meredith (photo: Theresa Stroll)

The other thing that makes a thriller work is atmosphere. And TU’s scene designer, Ann Hurd, has created a masterpiece — she’s turned The Belfry’s wee black box into a deep cavern of gloom, filled with suggestive fragments and shadows. Indeed, the set plays as active (and surprising) a part as the actors.

In this ominous space, a distraught lawyer (Adam Meredith) seeks out an actor (Spencer Cantrell) to help him tell a tale that’s been haunting his life. As the tale unfolds, of course, both of them must help to tell it — and so begins the constant shape-shifting that keeps us on our toes. Meredith gets the lion’s share of transformations, and executes them with speed and skill that will leave actors in the audience speechless (and rather green).

The tale rockets along, thanks to the sure pacing of Jacob Smith (who led an equally taut — and more serious — thriller in 2015’s Ligature Marks).  The mystery itself is still less than gripping, but it unfolds so swiftly and skillfully that we don’t mind. And Amanda Rae Troisi adds a touch that almost makes us feel we might be hallucinating.

The Woman in Black does not offer a deep encounter with the darkness. But Theatre Unleashed gives it a ripping good ride — and this side of London, you won’t find its equal. The play (which has closed its premiere run) definitely belongs on TU’s fall calendar as a witching-season staple.
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The Woman in Black, by Stephen Mallatratt (adapted from Susan Hill’s novella), directed by Jacob Smith.
Presented by Theatre Unleashed, at The Belfry, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood  91602.

Closed (for now).