Idaho Shakespeare Festival's latest production leaves as lingering a presence as its title character. The Woman in Black is at once simple and intriguing, and it's the perfect sort of tale to accompany a cool fall night.
Pulling off an effective ghost story with a two-man cast in an outdoor theater is a challenging task, but like a frightful tale told around a campfire, ISF manages to draw the audience in and hold them captivated. It's probably the reason the play has been a mega-hit in London for the better part of two decades although, surprisingly, it's little known on this side of the pond.
The story is a play within a play, as a man tormented by the supernatural events of his past attempts to purge himself of their dark memory by putting them to paper and then sharing the tale with his friends and family with the coaching of a professional actor.
Mr. Kipps (Dudley Swetland) is reluctant from the start, but his is drawn out by the actor (Chad Hoeppner), who eventually plays the role of a young Kipps, while Kipps himself takes on the roles of associated characters in his story.
As a young lawyer, Kipps is called to a remote house to settle the estate of an eccentric widow. While there, he discovers a dark secret and is pulled into it with torturous results.
As the plot is established under the bright blue sky and with a reluctant narrator, it's hard to imagine the story becoming a gripping thriller. But the production is timed perfectly so that as the tension builds and the tale begins to flow, the skies darken to complete the atmosphere.
Both actors turn in strong performances, holding the audience in rapt attention, although the use of microphones coupled with the use of the aisles for entrances and exits makes it a bit disorienting to find the actors on occasion.
Still, the production effectively weaves the web of the story, relying on the basic, but time-honored tools of the theater to do so. The set is an ode to the magic of the theater, designed to emulate an old playhouse, where the energy of past productions oozes from the walls and magic lurks within the cacophony of well-worn props.
A minimal crew takes full advantage of lighting and sound to create atmosphere--not to mention a heavy dose of fishing line to set objects (and even the occasional tree) into motion seemingly on their own. There is a decidedly Dickensian feel to the production, which completes the dressing for a good ghost story.
The simple, yet effective approach to the entire production is a perfect example of how theater can lead an audience so completely into an imaginary world.
Besides, it's hard to deny the appeal of a good, old-fashioned ghost story.