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The Woman in Black
By Stephen Mallatratt
Based on the book by Susan Hill
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
October 30, 2013

B. Weller, Jared  Sanz-Agero Photo by Joey Rumpell RumZoo Photography

B. Weller, Jared Sanz-Agero
Photo by Joey Rumpell
RumZoo Photography

The lights go up on the stage of an old-fashioned theatre, where a solitary and obviously nervous man stands alone, reading from a manuscript in a sometimes halting, sometimes rapid-fire monotone, whereupon he is interrupted by a professional actor, who then proceeds to demonstrate how to present the story. This seems like the setup for a comedy, but it’s actually just the beginning of the increasingly suspenseful horror story The Woman in Black, presented at The Chapel by Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble as the latest entry in their “Season of the Monster”.  The “monster” in this case is taken more literally than in some other plays  in the series, in that this is a classic ghost story, and SATE, as usual, presents the material in a thoroughly engrossing manner.

A play like this is kind of difficult to write about, since saying too much about what happens would spoil too much of the plot, but the basic story is about Arthur Kipps (B. Weller), a man with a traumatic story to tell but with no real skills to tell it, and so he enlists an Actor (Jared Sanz-Agero) to help him tell the story which involves Kipps in his younger years and a small town mystery and legend about the ghostly appearance of a Woman in Black (Shelby Partridge).  Through the course of the story, the Actor takes on the role of the younger Kipps, while the older Kipps plays all the other roles and seems to really get the hang  of this “acting” thing, which provides some truly entertaining comic moments as well as the dramatic and downright scary.

This play scared the living daylights out of me. Seriously, it did. I admit I’m something of a wimp when it comes to horror, but I’m usually not as squeamish with ghost stories as with other types of horror shows, and this was terrifying, in an old-fashioned creepy, shivers-down-your-spine sort of way.  The tone and build-up of this story are among its highlights of this production, in that it starts out light and gets ever so much darker as the story unfolds, and the pace is maintained well by the extremely small cast.  It’s a deceptive tone in a way, in that it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be all that scary at first, and then the ghostly creepiness starts it gets all the more frightening, and you never know when you might see or hear something spooky.  The fact that the action is not confined to the stage adds to the atmosphere, and especially for audience members who sit along the aisles–watch out!  This is not an over-the-top scarefest, though, but a suspenseful and truly creepy ghost story, and for me, it was very effective.

B. Weller, as Kipps, has the challenging job of playing an inexperienced and downright bad actor at the beginning of the play, and then taking on various wildly differing roles as the Actor (Jared Sanz-Agero) takes over Kipps’s role in telling his story. Weller seamlessly transitions from role to role in a chamelion-like fashion, displaying a variety of ages and accents in a remarkable, energetic performance. He commands the stage and makes every one of his many characters compelling and believable.  It’s a remarkably strong performance, and Sanz-Agero portrays the confident Actor and the increasingly less confident younger Kipps convincingly as well.  I especially liked one moment relatively early on where the ghost story elements start to emerge, and Sanz-Agero’s reaction (as both Kipps and the Actor playing him) to a sight that startles him as both characters simultaneously.  These actors have to carry the whole show, basically, and they do so very well.

The Chapel is a small space, and this production uses it well, with the audience brought into the action and not just watching it. The stage is made up to look like an old-fashioned theatre complete with red velvet curtain and footlights, filled with furniture draped in white fabric. Kudos to Scenic and Lighting Designer Bess Monynihan for such an atmospheric set. The lighting, emphasizing shadows and adding to the spooky tone, is also excellent, and the sound effects (courtesy of Sound Designer Ellie Schwetye) add just the right amount of atmosphere and creepiness.  When I saw it, there were a few few small “opening night” issues that should be worked out as the show runs, such as a few missed sound cues and dropped lines, but for the most part I would say this production more than achieved the effect for which it was aiming.

SATE is a theatre company that is known for its character and movement-driven pieces, and this production is no exception with its great cast and energy.  This is a show that takes its audience on a roller-coaster ride from broad comedy to mystery, to drama, and to intense fear in the vein of a well-told ghost story.  It’s more than just scary, though.  It’s entertaining, thought-provoking and presents a fascinating tale.  It’s an excellent show, and another success for SATE. 

Jared Sanz-Agero Photo by Joey Rumpell RumZoo Photography

Jared Sanz-Agero
Photo by Joey Rumpell
RumZoo Photography

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B. Weller, Jared Sanz-Agero

B. Weller, Jared Sanz-Agero

In a small English town at the turn of the 20th century, a young lawyer, Arthur Kipps, is confronted with a mystery, involving a local legend surrounding a mysterious apparition of a woman. Who is this Woman In Black? Is she a ghost, and is there really a link between this ethereal figure and the deaths of area children, or is the whole story just a figment of the townspeople’s imaginations? The Woman in Black by Susan Hill is a tale of mystery, terror and suspense that has become a modern classic, adapted into several films for TV and the screen, and by Stephen Mallatratt into a famously long-running play in London’s West End.   At the Chapel arts venue just off of South Skinker Blvd, members of the cast and crew with Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE) are working diligently to bring this thrilling story to the St. Louis stage. 

On this particular evening, actors B. Weller (Kipps) and Jared Sanz-Agero (the Actor) are here with director Rachel Tibbetts and Stage Manager Mollie Amburgey rehearsing and working on their accents and movement for the show. The production presents a challenge for all involved.  For Tibbetts, part of the challenge is in the venue. “The thing is we don’t have a backstage, so we have to be kind of creative”, she says.  Because there are no wings for scene changes and the Chapel is a small performance space, the plan is to use as much of the space as possible for performance, including the audience area.  “I think it works really nicely”, says Tibbetts “because of the play within the play concept, in that having the actors head out into the audience really helps”.

The play’s structure is also somewhat unusual. The story is told in flashbacks as a play within a play but with something of a twist. Weller explains that “[as Kipps]I’ve brought my horrible story to an actor, with the hopes of him giving me advice of how to tell the story, so as we go through telling the story, the actor becomes me, and then I play all the other characters.”  Sanz-Agero, as the Actor, plays the younger Kipps as the action of the story unfolds.

While Weller is no stranger to playing multiple roles (he has done so often in the past), there are some unique issues with this particular show that make the rehearsal process challenging for both actors.  “Actually” says Sanz-Agero, “this is the most difficult part I’ve ever played in my life.”  He explains that it’s the first show in which he’s had to perform in a non-American accent, among other issues: “It’s a British accent, and it’s not just a little bit of an accent. My character speaks for 2/3 of the show. My monologues go on for a page and a half. And it’s, make sure you don’t drop that dialect. On top of that you’re acting with invisible things, and miming with little invisible dogs, which is always a pitfall for any actor” in terms of making it look believable.

“Never work with invisible animals,” jokes Weller, to which Sanz-Agero adds “or invisible children, and we work with both in this!”  Weller compares the mime aspects of the show to green screen acting in films, and Sanz-Agero agrees, also emphasizing the fact that the actors almost never leave the performance area.“Everything has to happen onstage and there’s a lot of acting of heightened emotions of total terror that most people don’t do.”

The dialect in this show is another fascinating aspect of the rehearsal process, as the actors discuss how to pronounce specific words (such as “again”) as well as presenting a consistent accent.  The cast members have worked with a dialect coach, Pamela Reckamp, to help them develop believable accents. To add to the challenge, Sanz-Agero points out that “this is a dialect that no longer exists. This is like…100 years ago where they probably spoke a lot clearer”. Also, according to Tibbetts ,“[Weller] in particular plays several different characters, so his voice changes with each character.”

The actors approach their roles differently, with Weller taking a more instinctive approach with little pre-rehearsal research, and Sanz-Agero reading the book, watching several of the movies and looking up videos on YouTube. Their end goal, however, is the same: a convincing, truthful performance. “I actually find that, generally speaking, a play’s a play” says Weller when asked about the horror genre and if it requires a different approach. “You just play whatever part you’re handed. It doesn’t really matter what type it is.” You “go after your objective” agrees Sanz-Agero.

The production is a part of SATE’s current “Season of the Monster” that includes plays of various genres that highlights aspects of the monstrous to varying degrees in everyday life, according to director Rachel Tibbetts.  Comparing this show to the previous production in the series, Nine/Sketch, Tibbetts says “I think both pieces look at what a monster is much different ways. But I think with this piece, yes it’s a ghost story and it’s creepy but I think really what drives it is the sadness from the loss of these children, and that’s where a lot of the terror comes from, too.”  

B. Weller, Jared Sanz-Agero

B. Weller, Jared Sanz-Agero

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble’s production of The Woman In Black runs from October 30th through November 9th at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Dr. Check out SATE’s website for more information. You can also check out this interesting article about the production and the source material from my friend, film critic Dave Henry from ZekeFilm, at their website here.

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