By May S. Ruiz
London’s second longest-running West End play ‘The Woman in Black’ will premiere on the West Coast at the Pasadena Playhouse from October 17 to November 11, just in time for Halloween. With all the stage wizardry that has led audiences in London to shriek in fear for over 28 years, it promises to live up to its reputation as one of the most terrifying theater events ever mounted.
Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from a novel by Susan Hill, the play is directed by Robin Herford, who has also helmed all its productions in Tokyo, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand. He is recreating his original staging for the first time in the United States with Bradley Armacost as Arthur Kipps and Adam Wesley Brown as The Actor.
Hill’s Gothic ghost story is set in an isolated windswept mansion which has secrets hidden behind its shuttered windows. There, a young lawyer encounters horrific visions in the house set amidst the eerie marshes and howling winds of England’s forbidding North Coast.
Years later, he tells his frightening tale to exorcise the terror that grips his soul. Mallatratt’s adaptation is a play within a play, with Kipps rehearsing with an actor to perform the story for his family and friends, thereby making him relive the haunting of Eel Marsh House.
It all begins innocently enough, but as he reaches further into his darkest memories, he quickly finds that there is no turning back. With just two actors, ‘The Woman in Black’ gives audiences an evening of unremitting drama and sheer theatricality as they are transported into a chilling and ghostly world.
Speaking by phone, Armacost describes how he almost didn’t get the role of Arthur Kipps, “Robin Herford cast the play in Chicago at the same time I was playing in Washington D.C. so I wasn’t able to come to the audition. When they had finished casting, he asked if there was someone else they were thinking of for the role and my name came up.
“I did a scene on my iPhone and sent it to the casting director, who passed it on. They caught up with me at an airport where we had a casting session of sorts. I had a half-hour Skype conversation on my iPad with Robin, who was in London. We got on quite well and the next thing I knew I had the role; I found it funny because he had no idea if I even had a leg since all he could see was my face.
“Robin came in from London for the two-and-a-half week rehearsal in Chicago and stayed through the opening in Cleveland. He had to fly back to London for opening night of the 12,000th performance of ‘The Woman in Black’ in London.”
While it has been running in London for almost three decades, Armacost hadn’t seen it. “I was unfamiliar with the play but I knew there was a 2012 film with Daniel Radcliffe whom everyone knows as Harry Potter. I’m surprised my son didn’t bring it to my attention.
“I was told, though, that while the film has the same subject and is taken from the same novel by Susan Hill, it is completely different. In the film there are other actors performing various parts; in the play there are just two of us and we act out all the characters. I perform at least seven characters and my partner plays three. With only two actors on stage, you quickly realize that if he’s not talking, I am. And if I’m not talking, he is.”
That puts a lot of the burden of having to memorize so much dialogue on both actors. But that didn’t daunt Armacost. He says, “First of all, Susan has a good story and Stephen has written a magnificent script. There’s no fat on it, no unnecessary word. It’s to the point, so it’s quite easy to memorize and perform. There are silences in it but, hopefully, those are the moments when the audiences are most at the edge of their seats.”
Continues Armacost, “I can practically set my watch and count three, two, one and … there’s a scream. There were times when someone in the audience would call out ‘Don’t go in that door!’ You can practically see them jumping in other people’s laps. The audience reaction is like an electric shock. The play opens and the audience is on an electric wire which keeps us moving. It may be one of the reasons the play is easy to memorize. It’s no wonder it has run for as long as it has. It’s truly a joy to perform in this play; it’s such an audience pleaser.
“It’s truly an honor to be involved in this production. We were very fortunate to be working with Robin who has been touring this play and has directed it for 30 years. While he has shared some short cuts on how to interpret it, he’s given us a free hand in making it our own. Every so often during rehearsal, in his very British way, he would say, ‘You might try ….’”
Asked what he finds compelling about ‘The Woman in Black,’ Armacost replies, “What truly stands out in this production is that everyone in the audience is another character and brings his or her own imagination. One dog on the stage can be as many different breeds as there are people in the audience. Each one envisions his own picture of what the scary mansion looks like. I think when audience members are that invested, they have a greater appreciation of the play.
“This is for someone who enjoys mystery and likes crossword and jigsaw puzzles; it’s a thinking person’s frightening tale. It’s not a life transforming play, it’s just a communal experience where the person next to you jumps and you do the same. Then you share a laugh together. And in times like these, when even the news is sometimes frightening, it’s fun to just be able to say ‘for the next two hours I will listen to this story and be like a kid again.’
“And, for me, it’s a delight to be a part of this clever production. The play, which only has two chairs and one doorway, holds the audience captive. It’s remarkable how something so seemingly uncomplicated has managed to frighten audiences for over a quarter century.”