Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Photo: Robert Koon as The Actor in THE WOMAN IN BLACK
Review: THE WOMAN IN BLACK at Wildclaw Theatre Company
By Bec Willett
It’s much easier to separate things into black and white boxes of good and bad, right and wrong, firmly close their lids and file them away under “how the world works.” Grays are much too difficult to file. Open boxes? You never know what might pop out of one and mess up the whole system.
Recent social media discussion about the attitude towards genre theater in Chicago has highlighted that there are certain boxes we like to keep firmly closed. According to Tiffany Keane Schaefer, Artistic Director of Sci-Fi and Fantasy focused Otherworld Theatre, the type of work she produces has – to put it simply – been stuck in the bad box. She has often experienced the assumptions made about genre theater – namely that it is not “serious theater” and that it provides little engagement for those outside of its fan base. Of the horror genre, THE WOMAN IN BLACK breaks open this box as the second longest running play in West End history, defying assumptions that this type of theater isn’t for everyone.
Adapted from a 1980s gothic novel of the same title, THE WOMAN IN BLACK tells the story of solicitor Mr. Kipps and The Actor who set out on a cathartic mission to stage Kipps’ terrifying supernatural experience of the past. This play may start in reality, but its fantastical ideas soon take over. Fortunately, the designers of this Wildclaw production are experts in creating a space that allows the worldly cynic to fade and the possibility of the supernatural to blossom.
From the start, the audience experience is deliberately crafted through John Wilson and Alec Long’s scenic and props design. The hallway entrance (which I won’t spoil by detailing for you) immediately distorts perspective, opening up the possibility of the supernatural from the very beginning. The hall leads into a dark, crumbling, unsettling Victorian style theater where structural lines are askew, fragmented reflections are seen through broken mirrors, and even the peeling paint seems to have had many past lives. Throughout the performance the lighting and sound design complement the set, indicating period through the use of a variety of 19th-century practicals and recorded sound that cleverly allows the audience’s imagination space in which to haunt itself.
As is often the case, that which makes a script intelligent and engaging is also the source of its challenge. In this instance, it is the task of creating and maintaining clarity and tension throughout the play’s meta-theatrical conventions. The script calls for two actors to not just inhabit Victorian men – Mr. Kipps (Priyank Thakkar) and The Actor (Robert Koon) – but also requires them to enact another play from the perspective of these men. For this play to work, each character must be embodied just so; enough to show the context of Victorian reality but also for the play within the play to work as storytelling device unto itself. The performances are mostly successful in doing this, thanks to director Elly Green’s innovative use of space and Koon’s powerful and detailed character work. A stronger sense of the stakes of Thakkar’s Actor and how they impact his portrayal of Mr. Kipps would help to consolidate the plays throughline of tension. Even so, both Thakkar and Koon continuously engage the audience with an in-the-moment warmth that evokes empathy, and with it, a deeper and more thrilling experience of their terror.
Regardless of whether you ascribe yourself as a fan of the horror genre or not, Wildclaw’s THE WOMAN IN BLACK is a well-considered and delightfully haunting production that proves why this script has received such acclaim.