Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Woman in Black - Where Innocence Meets The Unexplainable

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

(Originally scheduled to run through April 19th, The Woman in Black, as well as all other live performances at the McKittrick Hotel have been suspended until further notice due to the coronavirus pandemic.  Please check the McKittrick website - noted below - for updates.)

Any good writer knows the true power of a ghost story comes not from what is written down, spoken aloud, or even presented for all to see; but rather from the ominous silences and pregnant pauses that fall in-between. These suggestive moments used to further stimulate the already overactive imaginations of those immersed in the tale. Thus making any coming revelation all the more terrifying. So it is with Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, The Woman in Black. A stage version of which has been running in the U.K. for over 30 years. After making a brief off-Broadway appearance in 2001, the play has finally returned to these shores and can now be seen at the McKittrick Hotel.

Englishman Arthur Kipps (David Acton) is a bright young man with an even brighter future. He's an up-and-coming solicitor at a London law firm, and has a fiancĂ©e he loves dearly. One day he's called into his superior's office and given an assignment which will take him to the remote town of Crythin Gifford. Once there, he will begin dealing with the estate of the recently diseased Mrs. Drablow, and represent the firm at her funeral. 

Initially seeing this as just another responsibility handed off to a junior member of the firm, upon his arrival Kipps is surprised to find himself treated as something of a pariah. The townspeople giving him strange looks and quite unwilling to talk to him once his purpose becomes known. It's as if they're all hiding something, which they absolutely refuse to discuss. Such is the case with Mr. Jerome, the local estate agent. A seemingly innocent question from Kipps at the funeral being enough to send the man into a fit of terror.
      L-R) David Acton and Ben Porter. Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson for The McKittrick Hotel

Determined to do the job to which he has been assigned, and with no patience for any apparent local superstitions, Kipps heads out to the Drablow home, an isolated place known as Eel Marsh House. Kipps describing his first sight of the structure as if it was "rising out of the water itself. A tall gaunt house of grey stone with a slate roof.” The entire area surrounded by marshland and accessible only by a long narrow causeway at low tide.

While sorting through the endless papers Mrs. Drablow left behind, Kipps soon begins to feel a strange, ominous presence. A sensation followed soon after by a series of unexplainable noises. Sounds which lead him to a mysterious locked room. Shaking Kipps even further are sudden screams of terror coming from the marshes. It's not long before this once firm believer in the logical and explainable begins to fear for his very sanity, as an oft-repeated horror which stretches back more than a generation begins to unfold about him.

The Woman in Black is told on two parallel tracks. The first reveals a now-aged Kipps trying to tell his story about that long ago experience. One which haunts him to this day. The second is Kipps' tale actually recreated, thanks to an Actor (Ben Porter) who is determined to inject some passion into what Kipps has put down on paper. During this process, The Actor assumes the role of younger Kipps, while Kipps himself takes on the various secondary roles his story calls for. The two men occasionally breaking character to converse with each other as these events play out.

                             Ben Porter. Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson for The McKittrick Hotel

Adapter Stephen Mallatratt wisely mixes the earlier moments of the production with bits of humor, as we see Kipps, the lawyer by trade, having no idea of the difference between simply speaking a story aloud and actually presenting it to an audience. Something The Actor, due to his trade, is quite well-versed in. Mallatratt, director Robin Herford and the rest of the creative team also taking full advantage of the “show, don’t tell” adage when it comes to actually putting forth Kipps’ tale. They jettisoning much of his various descriptions and substituting sound-recordings, lighting effects and some nicely atmospheric props. The methods used to suggest a “pony-trap” (horse and carriage) being particularly amusing. 

The story, already foreboding in the beginning, turns much darker in act two as Kipps finds himself increasingly left to his own devices as he stumbles from one horror to the next. His own terror projected out into the audience as they wait for the next shoe to drop. Or the next door to open, or flash of light to illuminate what lurks in the shadows.

The material also offers a stark warning about the danger of obsession. Be it a determination to do one’s job, the love one has for another, or the fear of avoiding a scandal. Holding too tightly onto anything, as the show ultimately points out, has a tremendous potential for tragedy. The story also shows what happens when one is so deeply immersed in their own pain, they lose the ability to forgive. So much so that even those who had nothing to do with the original circumstances are now forced to pay the price.

                           Ben Porter. Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson for The McKittrick Hotel

Acton does a wonderful job as Kipps. Purposefully awkward and ill at ease when trying to tell his story aloud, he later comes brilliantly alive when assuming the various different personas in the tale. Porter is excellent as The Actor. He perfectly portraying the younger Kipps with just the right amount of enthusiasm and naiveté during his ill-fated trip, and later breaking down completely when faced with the ultimate truth.

The program bills the show as “a ghost story in a pub”. The Club Car space at the McKittrick nicely set up to project that initially relaxed atmosphere. However, the way the show is staged is not always conducive to the work.

Just as the proper use of silence can be used to heighten tension, too often here it provokes laughter. As evident during a sequence where Kipps is seemingly roaming about the Drablow house in a desperate search. This process taking too long and would have worked far better had Porter been slowly approaching something on stage, rather than walking between the rows of tables where the audience is sitting.

The show would have also been better served without an intermission. Breaking the work into two sections only serves to halt the buildup of growing terror, and also somewhat dilutes the overall effect. The use of Herford’s direction clearly off at points, with a definite need for things to be played much more sharply. This is especially true in the initial going, where the early banter between The Actor and Kipps could easily have been pared down a bit. Designer Michael Holt’s sets are fine, especially the aforementioned locked room and what is eventually found there. Also completely essential to the show, each in their own way are the excellent lighting effects by Anshuman Bhatia, and the sound design efforts by Sebastian Frost.

                            Ben Porter. Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson for The McKittrick Hotel

There’s no doubt The Woman In Black is a powerful story. Although there is certainly a lot to experience with the McKittrick production, its actual presentation falls a bit short of the mark.

Featuring: David Acton (Arthur Kipps), Ben Porter (The Actor), Guy Balotine (Standby for Arthur Kipps), James Evans (Standby for The Actor).

Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story in a Pub

Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt
Director: Robin Herford
Production Stage Manager: Carolyn Boyd
Designer: Michael Holt
Stage Manager: Emily Roth
Lighting Designer: Anshuman Bhatia
Assistant Stage Manager: Deidre Works
Sound Designer: Sebastian Frost
Vision Productions: Imogen Finlayson
Original Sound Design: Rod Mead
General Managers: Tim Smith & Martin Platt
Associate Director: Magdalene Spanuello
Casting Director: Laura Stanczyk

Presented by The McKittrick Hotel
Address: 530 West 27th Street
Running Time: Two Hours, including one intermission

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Dana H - Portrait of A Real-Life Nightmare

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Playwright Lucas Hnath unveils a very personal tale which examines one of humankind's deepest fears. Being held captive by another person while you pray for your very survival. A terror magnified one-hundred fold when freedom looks to be just a few steps away, but being able to cross that threshold seems impossible. Such events, which happened to Hnath's own mother, presented in the documentary theatre piece, Dana H.  Featuring Deidre O’Connell, this work is now at the Vineyard Theatre.

                                         Deidre O'Connell in 'Dana H."  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Dana is someone who cares about helping others. A chaplain who works in a Florida psychiatric ward, she listens to the patients while trying to help them deal with their various issues. Patients such as Jim. A tattooed ex-convict and member of the Aryan Brotherhood, he has a history of mental issues and drug abuse. Someone who can cry like a child one minute and lash out violently the next. Jim establishing a strong emotional connection to Dana during their time together. He eventually becoming so attached to her that, after a suicide attempt, he insisted that unless she came to talk to him, he would not obey the treatment center's protocols.

Jim's firm belief of how much he needs Dana finally spins out of control when, one day in 1997, he breaks into her home and kidnaps her. During the next five months, he physically abuses and psychologically terrorizes her while they travel from place to place, staying in various hotels in the Florida/North Carolina area. Her son, who was away at college during this period, didn’t learn the full story and its subsequent ramifications until years later. Hnath using the audio tapes from a series of interviews his mom gave to Steve Cosson in 2015 to recreate Dana’s experience for the audience. O’Connell telling this story to an unseen interviewer in a non-descript hotel room, while lip synching to Dana's own words. 

Told by someone still trying to fully come to terms with what happened, Dana’s tale is the stuff of nightmares. Especially terrifying is the fact that, due to Jim’s apparent standing in the criminal community and his relationship with the local authorities, almost no one is willing to help her. Any members of law enforcement they happen to come across either recognize Jim straight off and turn a blind eye, or can do little more than buy Dana some time so she can flee. Dana’s time with Jim not a consecutive five-month period, as she was able to escape at least twice. Only to have Jim track her down and force her to come with him again.

                                               Deidre O'Connell in 'Dana H."  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Particularly affecting is Dana’s description of Jim. A charismatic figure with a hair-trigger temper, he continually repeats to Dana how she must always stay with him as only he can protect her. Jim’s involving her in his criminal activities - at one point he sends her to buy guns for him - as well as his continued paranoia about people watching his movements, exacerbates Dana’s own fear about who can she trust to help her. At the same time, a sort of paralysis begins to settle around her where the prospect of escape battles with that of survival. Indeed, one gets the clear feeling Dana hasn’t quite gotten over the thought there might be those from Jim's world that are still watching her.

The work itself is broken down into three separate sections. The early minutes filled with a sense of foreboding as, thanks to information contained in the show program, what is about to happen is clearly explained. Watching those first recollections, one can't help but wonder what Dana might have done to make later events turn out differently. Or what we would have done, were we in that situation.

It’s initially a bit jarring to have all the dialogue presented via lip synch, but O’Connell is so able to immerse herself into the character, you quickly forget she is not the one doing the actual speaking. Steve Cuiffo, billed in the program as an Illusion & Lip Sync Consultant, doing a fantastic job in that aspect. He and director Les Waters working with O’Connell to make sure her every movement, gesture and facial expression perfectly fits with the dialogue. Thus allowing an extra dimension to Dana's words. In effect, both it is Dana and O'Connell who are telling this tale.

                                          Deidre O'Connell in 'Dana H."  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

There are a few technical problems present. Such as the continual beeps heard during the sound recordings. They either meant as cues for O’Connell or to indicate a different point in time during Dana's actual interviews. Necessary as they may be, they quickly start to become distracting. Also, there are two occasions when Dana describes certain objects, such as a photograph of a crime scene where there’s a huge amount of congealed blood, and a piece of silverware with Nazi markings. However the objects in question are so small that when O'Connell displays them, they are impossible to see unless one is seated almost directly in front of her. Either using a projection screen to make these items clearer, or simply not showing them at all, and just going with Dana’s descriptions, which are all quite detailed, would have worked far better.

Andrew Boyce's set of the hotel room, with its pink walls, drab bedspread, twin lamps and ceiling fan, perfectly calls to mind the thousands of such rooms across the country. Waters directs the entire piece with a sure hand. He not having to worry about ratcheting up the tension as it were, but simply allow Dana’s story to play out in her own words.

Dana H tells one woman’s harrowing tale of terror, survival and the beginnings of recovery. It’s a story both powerfully and painfully told.

Dana H.
by Lucas Hnath

Adapted from interviews from Dana Higginbotham conducted by Steve Cosson

Featuring: Deidre O’Connell

Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce
Costume Design: Janice Pytel
Lighting & Supertitle Design: Paul Toben
Sound Design: Mikhail Fiksel
Illusion & Lip Sync Consultant: Steve Cuiffo
Production Stage Manager: Clarissa Marie Ligon
Production Supervisor: Adrian White
Production Manager: Conor McCarthy
Press Representative: The Press Room
General Manager: DR Theatrical Management

Directed by Les Waters

Presented by the Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street
Tickets: 212-353-0303 or
Running Time: 80 Minutes, No Intermission
Closes: April 11, 2020