Theatre Unleashed offers Halloween season audiences an entertaining and occasionally shiver-and-gasp-worthy intimate staging of the three-decades-long-running West End smash “ghost play” The Woman In Black minus the full quotient of horror-movie chills a bigger-bucks production could provide.

Stephen Malatratt’s 1987 adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 Victorian-era gothic novella is as clever and theatrical as stage adaptations get.

Rather than tell its traumatized protagonist’s tale of terror the old-fashioned way, Malatratt has adapted The Woman In Black as a two-hander with one actor as our horrified hero/narrator and the other in virtually all supporting roles save the titular black-clad ghost, then adds an ingenious play-within-a-play twist.

London solicitor Arthur Kipps (Adam Meredith) has hired Actor (Spencer Cantrell) to help theatricalize the lengthy manuscript he has written to recount his adventures in terror.

Unfortunately, Kipps is told that if he simply reads his manuscript aloud, not only will this take up five hours of an audience’s time, it will likely bore them to death—or a premature departure—given Kipps’s decided lack of thespianic skills.

And so Actor offers to assume the role of story-teller/protagonist and enlists Kipps to portray every other character on his journey from London to the coastal village of Crythin Gifford (where an elderly widowed client has recently met her demise) and miracle of miracles, the previously talentless Arthur proves more than up to the task.

It’s at Mrs. Drablow’s funeral that Kipps first spots The Woman In Black, though it is hardly the last time the mysteriously shrouded figure will pop up as the mystified solicitor investigates her identity and, once he’s figured out that she’s a ghost, the cause of her death.

Like Patrick Barlow’s hit Broadway adaptation of John Buchan/Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, much of the pleasure in watching Malatratt’s stage take on The Woman In Black comes from seeing a single actor’s transformation from character to character at the blink of an eye (or switch of an accent or hat) and Meredith has great fun playing the initially not-ready-for-his-close-up Mr. Kipps; Mr. Bentley, who sends Arthur on his mission; Mr. Bentley’s clerk Tomes; landowner Sam Daily, whom Arthur meets aboard the train to Crythin Gifford and who becomes his loyal sidekick; the Landlord of the Gifford Arms; Alice Drablow’s land agent Mr. Jerome, who escorts Arthur to the graveyard where she is to be buried; and Mr. Keckwick, whose pony and trap transports Arthur to the tall, gaunt house Mrs. Drablow had called home.

The sheer theatricality of Malatratt’s adaptation, deftly directed for Theatre Unleashed by Jacob Smith, delights as well, enlisting the audiences imagination in picturing the hustle and bustle of a London train station, Keckwick’s horse and carriage, a dog named Spider, and a raging storm, thanks in part to “recorded sound” only recently become a trick of Victorian theater.

Meredith is a scene-stealing standout in one delectable characterization after another, and Cantrell does committed work despite the shakiest of English accents.

By expanding the Belfry Stage to its maximum playing area, scenic designer Ann Hurd is able to keep the mysterious Woman In Black far enough in the distance to mystify (though still perhaps not as far away as optimum), and Katie Sikkema’s costumes are Victorian treats, with some nifty accessorizing to transform Meredith from character to character.

Both Gregory Craft’s lighting and Graydon Schlichter’s sound design and have their potent moments, particularly Schlichter’s myriad effects and Craft’s dark shadows as things get scarier in Act Two.

Still, without a bigger-budgeted theater’s more sophisticated lighting equipment and a higher-decible sound system that could up the chills and thrills (and give Act One finale the left-me-breathless climax it deserves), Theatre Unleashed’s production doesn’t deliver the maximum goods. (Some theatrical haze might help too at appropriate moments and a more pervasive horror-movie-style musical underscoring would add considerably to the thrills and chills.)

Erin Moore is stage manager. A prerecorded Graydon Schilchter performs the Priest and occasional “other voices.” Amanda Rae Troisi joins Cantrell and Meredith at curtain calls.

Though not the downright spectacular production I’d now very much like to see, Theatre Unleashed’s The Woman In Black provides enough chuckles and chills to make it a Halloween 2017 treat.

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The Belfry Stage, Upstairs at the Crown, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
November 2, 2017
Photos: Theresa Stroll

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