Woman in Black at Scottish Rite Theater

Skilled actors and atmospheric design combine to make this co-production a spine-tingler ideal for Halloween

Fright night: Stephen Price (standing) and Kareem Badr
Fright night: Stephen Price (standing) and Kareem Badr (Photo by Kimberley Mead)

Absent enough light and sound, the imagination takes over. Our minds wander in the direction of what little suggestion we've been given. Woman in Black uses this concept first as a tool, then as a powerfully creepy weapon.

Stephen Malatratt's thrilling ghost story, based on Susan Hill's novella, tells us early on how it will be told. A solicitor, Arthur Kips, has enlisted the help of an actor to properly recount his experience at an English seaside estate – a tale that has haunted (sorry) him for years. The opening seems to drag, as the actor explains how the performance can be better achieved through action; the theatrical magic of recorded sound and simple suggested props taking the place of a droning manuscript. However, like a frightening freight train, we're starting off slow and building macabre momentum.

The actor – a charming and charismatic Kareem Badr – eventually takes on the role of Kips in the play within the play that anchors the story. Badr conveys a sense of discovery and horror as he portrays Kips' journey to the seaside village, there to settle the affairs (loads of paperwork, and some interesting personal letters) of recently deceased elderly shut-in Mrs. Drablow. As Kips, Stephen Price becomes the supporting cast of villagers, fully existing within several characters without losing Kips' distinct fearful melancholy that has driven him to tell this story – and hopefully end it in doing so. As with all good scary stories, the tension builds as the yarn unfolds and eerie details emerge. Something is happening at Eel Marsh House, and the villagers are uncomfortable with Kips staying there. Something is happening in the village as well. There's a much deeper story here, and nobody wants to talk about it ... nor does this critic, but that's for your benefit.

Director Emily Rankin clearly establishes tone throughout; even in lighter moments, a foreboding lingers in the air, like the sea mists that often plague the village. Rankin has chosen a talented pair of performers, backed by a skilled design team. The old-world feel of the Scottish Rite Theater makes it a perfect venue, and the elemental and environmental factors combine to form a third character as important as the physical bodies onstage. Jennifer Rose Davis' costume design is top-drawer English, though no specific era is noted (we can assume early 20th century; pony and traps are important, though a car is mentioned). Patrick Anthony's lights are subtle at first, bathing Christopher Conard's set in simple lights, showing off the set-piece representing the entry to Eel Marsh House and an ornate backdrop from the Scottish Rite's stock – a hellish forest-scape. But as we move through the story, the lights take on a life of their own, evolving from simplistic to specific and complex, using darkness as often as illumination, almost maddeningly making the audience wonder if they've seen what they think they've seen or if they've imagined it. It's simply exquisite luminous psychology, if that's a thing. The lighting couples perfectly with David Boss' near-perfect sound design. There is no music here, no heightened score to tell you how you're supposed to feel – silence is the static norm at first, even during scene changes, which makes sound even more effective (and startle-inducing) once it is slowly introduced and then builds to a cacophony of terror toward the show's climax.

Woman in Black is certainly a spine-tingler, externally providing chills and internally prodding base fears. This co-production by Penfold Theatre, 7 Towers Theatre, and Austin Scottish Rite Theater makes an excellent addition to the Halloween season.

Woman in Black

Austin Scottish Rite Theater, 207 W. 18th
Through Oct. 30
Running time: 2 hr.
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Penfold Theatre, Austin Scottish Rite Theater, 7 Towers Theatre Company, Emily Rankin, Stephen Price, Kareem Badr, Chris Conard, Patrick Anthony, David Boss

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