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Scare Tactics

Dark tales unfold at San Jose Stage Company's 'The Woman in Black'

By Marianne Messina

FLUID STAGE boundaries and three-sided seating at the San Jose Stage make it easy to blur the lines between viewer and viewed. And blurred boundaries are ideal for telling a ghost story. At a recent production of The Woman in Black, the timorous Arthur Kipps (Thomas Lynch acting so breakable you want to hold him together) wanders onto the stage like a lost patron, and as he begins to read from his large manuscript, a voice from the audience interrupts him.

From various points in the theater Rod Gnapp, playing the Actor (in the audience), critiques Kipps' performance and dissects the theatrical potential of Kipps' desperate "story that must be told." As art, the self-reflexive conceit is way overrated, but as ghost story, it takes Kipps' shuddering line "I pray God's protection on us all" and turns it into a foreboding sense that the audience will soon be dragged into this ghost story screaming.

The Actor interrupts the story less frequently after mercifully pointing out that he can shorthand Kipps' original text (overladen with description) by way of some choice sound effects. Sound designer Norman Kern gets to go wild—clopping horses, squeaking doors, barks, screams, marsh sounds, approaching ghosts—and the Stage's all-encompassing soundscape boosts the texts with a pervasive sense of presence. So instead of a reading, the enacted narration "comes to life" as the Actor plays the younger Kipps and Kipps plays everyone else (with the help of an onstage haberdashery).

In spite of the Actor's advice about thinning out description, there remains a heavy surplus of it. And in spite of Gnapp's vivid phrasing and Lynch's chameleon variety, it nearly drowns Stephen Mallatratt's elegant Victorian prose along with the company's well-studied British accents in a lavish but uneventful bog. Thus the setup of the play inches forward ever so slowly. Perhaps Kipps' journey to the musty mansion in some misty godforsaken bog has too many legs with characters offering the same vague ("Oh no; not that!") warnings. The story wants chilling details sooner rather than later.

Not to worry, once the tale gets rolling, the production opens up the thrill throttle. In addition to escalating sound effects and visuals, lighting designer Sean Russell brings on the blackouts and flashlights galore. But Russell's carefully targeted dimmer lighting is the more subtle mastery. In some of his designs the forlorn feeling utterly creeps off the stage. Together, Kani Seifert's costume design and Lynne Soffer's dialect coaching give the production a BBC sheen. Perhaps the creep-out factor could have been enhanced by letting the acting/staging seep into the audience later on (especially during darkness) to echo the play's beginning. Or maybe that would have been overkill (so to speak) because this production already had the audience jumping in their seats and letting out startled cries, the goal of every ghost story.

Some credit for the well concerted frights has to go to director Rick Singleton and his sharp sense of spectacle. Gnapp and Lynch drive home Mallatratt's nasty implication that just hearing this ghost story somehow connects you to its consequences—enough to give you the willies. And to top it off, judging from the credits, I'd have to say I saw a ghost.

The Woman in Black, a San Jose Stage Company production, plays Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Dec. 19 at the Stage, 400 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $20-$42. (408.283.7142)

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From the December 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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