'Woman in Black' is terrible, terrifying, terrific

Chills ran up and down my spine at the opening performance of the Collaborative Theatre Project’s "The Woman in Black," a deliciously frightening fall thriller, and the perfect play to open on Friday the 13th.

The performance opened to a set only faintly illuminated and shrouded in white, ghostly forms stirred by a faint breeze. The music was ominous, growing louder and more threatening as the countdown to curtain grew shorter.

An aging lawyer enlists the help of a brash young actor to tell a mysterious tale from his past when the lawyer is haunted by a mysterious woman in black. Instead of a reading, the young man reenacts the tale, and so the tale becomes a play within a play, set in the fog-shrouded bogs of rural England.

Only three actors are in the production, and the tight cast works together flawlessly.

Ric Hagerman plays Arthur Kipps, the lawyer who is determined to bring his nightmares to daylight once and for all by telling the story of the woman in black. Hagerman is a dynamic, flexible actor playing multiple roles — the properly British lawyer, an innkeeper, a trap driver — and he changes appearance, stance, movements as readily as he alters his speech patterns, all with just a different cap or scarf to physically mark the change.

The talented Nick Walker plays The Actor, who as a young Arthur Kipps, performs the tale and relives the lawyer’s long-ago terror out on the fens. As The Actor plays out the lawyer’s narrative, the set is transformed, no longer a London sitting room but a desolate wreck of an abode far away from any human presence. The Actor places us in this horror-filled, frightening, lonely space haunted by spirits, fear and memory, but it is Walker who creates the expansive, terrible place with motion and gesture, expression and emotion.

These lurid inventions of mind are birthed by the narrative, and it is Stephanie Jones as the woman in black who brings them to life. The woman in black darts in and out of the set; she is so silent and fearful in her movements you doubt the evidence of your eyes. The woman in black’s veiled form is only rarely exposed to light, and the phantom mutates from an insubstantial wraith to a fearsome spectral form.

Susan Hill wrote the tale as a British horror story in 1983, and it was adapted for the stage not long after by Stephen Mallatratt, when it was reconstructed as a play within a play.

As CTP guest director, Paul R. Jones brings out the best of his talented cast in this performance. He’s dressed in a tux, as he always is on opening night, and Friday he looked a bit unearthly.

“When they asked me to direct, I didn’t even hesitate,” Jones said. “It’s an amazing staging; it’s difficult to build that suspense and fear, the psychology of fear.”

Jones brought Geoffrey Ridden in as voice coach to ensure that those British dialects were spot on, and for Hagerman’s role, it was particularly effective. Mike Kunkel handled light and sound for “The Woman in Black” and deserves a special commendation. The timing of his split-second lighting was impeccable, and the music he developed for the production escalates the tension of the narrative.

In the dimly lit spaces of “The Woman in Black,” screams of pain and horror echo through the landscape, sending delightful waves of terror through the theater. We are left with the mystery of the woman in black until the final bone-chilling moments of the performance. Be ready to startle out of your seat, grab your armrests or the person next to you and enjoy.

Collaborative Theatre Project’s production of “The Woman in Black” runs through Oct. 31, at 500 Medford Center, across from Tinseltown. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 1:30 p.m. Sundays.

The play has some loud, sudden noises, flashing lights and would be a little scary for younger viewers. The show runs about 120 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets can be purchased at ctporegon.org, by calling 541-779-1055 or at the box office.

— Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a freelance writer in Ashland. She can be reached at mbattistellaor@gmail.com

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