The Value of Truth


Theatrical Review of

 A play by Stephen Mallatratt
 Based on the novel by Susan Hill

 Whitefire Theatre, Sherman Oaks, California
 Director Gabrieal Griego
 Premiere April 22, 2009

Ten years ago while I was still living in Bulgaria a good friend of mine, a director like me, invited me to watch a theater show together. He hadn’t seen it, but he insisted that based on the reputation of the producing company, it should be a success. I cancelled whatever plans I had for the evening, and there we were, sitting in the audience, full of excitement and high expectations. Then the performance started. It was less than a minute into the show, when he leaned towards me and whispered: “I apologize.” I could barely suppress my laughter for his quick diagnosis and witty way to share it. 

I remembered this story last Wednesday at the premiere of “The Woman in Black” at the Whitefire Theatre. It turned out to be one of the shows the quality of which you could sense from the very beginning as well. However, this time I felt something else: I sincerely thanked myself for having decided to go over my suspicion towards ghost plots (especially on stage, can you imagine?!), and spend the night in the theater.

Two people enter the space in front of us and start rehearsing a text. One is obviously the author, the other – the actor. We don’t know anything else, and we don’t need to – we are just immersed in their game, conducted with such an extreme psychological truthfulness, that at times we catch ourselves laughing at the same simple little paradoxes we stumble upon every day of our lives: inadequate reactions, irrelevant gestures, wasted nerves for petty causes. No trace of theatrical pretence, not even a sign that we’re about to watch a horror play. What rules is Theatre in its purest aspect – a show which tricks you into believing that you’re passing your neighbor’s open door, and you can’t help but peek inside to see what’s going on.

On a stage of 20’X8’ this approach seems to be the only possible way of keeping the audience on your side. Yet very often we witness the phenomenon which I call “theatre’s revenge”: your show is quite good and even interesting until the third act, when everything starts irreversibly falling apart because you as a director haven’t entwined its roots into the preceding action. Knowing and remaining quite skeptical about the genre of “The Woman in Black” (just look at the title!) I gradually started wondering (long before the third act) how this show would turn into the scary plot promised to us in the ads.

The answer was most unexpected: it never betrayed its initial commitment to truthfulness. Truthfulness turned out to be the most successful and compelling asset of the performance, which, as it advanced into the dark and scary segments of the plot, completely preserved its honesty. We were never forced to forget that we were actually watching two real people (our next-door neighbors) who were delving into a mystery from the past. It was their theatre, played openly with the simple interchangeable segments constituting the set, and accompanied by the charming carelessness of genuine theatricality. What remained real, serious and gradually horrifying though was their attitude to the events they were recreating. The director lured us into the horror by presenting it through the eyes of the characters, not by using outer superficial means. Her only retreat from this style was the sound (a realistic and amazingly affecting concept of Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski), and the appearance in real of… the Woman in Black. Yet that didn’t spoil the overall aesthetic harmony; by the time the horror started staring us in the face we had been taken too deeply into the dark well of the plot to be able to hold on to our skepticism.

The director and the actors achieved an even bigger goal, an achievement I admire most in any theatrical performance. It occurs when the show reaches beyond the mere storytelling, and reveals something new and unexpected about the way we perceive ourselves, and the world. In this particular case the crew got past simply presenting the spookiness of the play, and stirred thoughts about our human vulnerability which grows bigger with the sense of intangibility we adopt. The jolts of fear which concuss us towards the end are not caused by empathy; they are quite a real symptom of our deeply embedded and unacknowledged insecurity.

The work of the actors deserves special attention. Their biggest success is the beautiful artistic ensemble they manage to create and keep throughout the show. What unites them is undoubtedly their understanding of the director’s intentions, and their very high creative taste. It was a real pleasure watching them communicate in several different roles, without letting even a drop of their attention go astray from the direction of their characters’ obsessions or fears.

Stephen Taylor is Arthur Kipps, a lawyer and the author of the memoir, who from the very beginning carries in himself the unbearable burden of the tragedy of his past. Even when Kipps has to reincarnate other people, the actor never gets into the temptation of playing them without the memory of his primary character’s broken soul. It is a very difficult task indeed, but once fulfilled it turns into a sign of real mastership. It is both comic and sad to witness how the newly found actor’s self-confidence of Kipps battles with his immense inner inhibitions. It supports not only the veracity of the plot, but certainly the complex integrity of the performance in general.

Adam Conger, the Theatre Owner/Actor in the play, starts on the other end of the spectrum. Full of energy and artistic ambition, he tries to help Kipps putting up his literary work on stage. His approach to the happenings of the past is light-minded, and lead only by the necessity to make things interesting. In that he inevitably starts behaving like Kipps himself before the tragedy had struck him. But this is as far as he goes. Even when his character takes over playing a younger version of Kipps in the play both of them rehearse, Adam Conger sustains the part’s individuality. He never imitates his counterpart, thus succeeding in presenting a fresh look on the recreated past. The role is being built around the notion of the spontaneity and inner liberty it contains. This conveys a very strong sense of believability to the audience; the spectators easily accept Kipps and identify with him, which logically leads them to experience the same horrors as him, almost to the degree he experiences them himself.

 “The Woman in Black” is the directorial debut of Gabrieal Griego. Interestingly enough it lacks the common errors of a starting director: ungrounded ambiguity, ambition to tell everything about the world, inarticulate experimenting. Her style stays focused until the very end of the performance, which doesn’t deprive it from unexpected flashes of imagination and sudden theatrical turns. Her greatest success remains the natural approach to the intricate plot and complex genre which turns the production into a celebration of what really matters in contemporary theatre – revealing some more of the truth about us, the people in the audience.

© 2009 Peter Budevski

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