The Woman in Black

Christophe gets swept away by the character he is playing, terrifying himself (and us) as he loses control of his own narrative.
Cheltenham Center for the Arts, 439 Ashbourne Rd., Cheltenham, through April 6, 379-4660.

In an empty Victorian theater, Arthur Kipps (Tom Teti) has sought the assistance of a professional actor (Robert Christophe) to coach him in telling the story of a ghostly encounter he has had. The actor persuades him not just to read the story aloud to his friends and relatives as he had originally intended (to purge himself of the trauma of the experiences he is narrating) but rather to act the story out, with the actor playing Kipps and Kipps playing everyone else.

The story they enact on the empty stage to an empty auditorium (we, of course, pretend that we're not there) is virtually all there is to The Woman in Black, Stephen Mallatratt's adaptation of Susan Hill's popular novel, which has been playing in London's West End for close to a decade.

Fortunately, it's a reasonably good Victorian-style ghost story -- good enough, at least -- with graveyards, marshes, quicksand, a gloomy mansion cut off from the mainland at high tide, and the mysterious figure of an ashen woman dressed in black. I'd be more wary about giving away the surprises if there were any real surprises to give away.

And, even more fortunately, the story is cleanly and effectively staged by Ken Marini at Cheltenham, with just enough deadpan earnestness to suck the audience in when it has to.

And that's about it.

Well, not entirely. "Draw on your emotions," the actor tells Kipps, as he begins to read his story, leadenly, aloud, "and on our imaginations."The Woman in Black asks us to consider the nature of the character's emotions, and the emotions that the actor is able to recreate; and it asks us to compare our own imaginations -- the theatrical imagination that lets us turn a trunk and a fruit crate into a pony and trap, and empty space into a dog -- with the imagination of the characters -- an imagination that would enable them to believe that the figure in black might be a ghost, and that the dangers to their health and sanity and loved ones may not yet be over.

Mind you, Mallatratt's play doesn't do all that much with this. But Teti and Christophe do, through the sheer conviction of their acting: Teti, in his transformation from tongue-tied narrator into emotionally engaged character actor; and Christophe, as the Actor, gets swept away by the character he is playing, terrifying himself (and us) as he loses control of his own narrative.

It may not be much of a story. But the issues raised by the storytelling itself tell another, more interesting, story -- a story that's worth telling and worth listening to.

-- Cary M. Mazer