THE WOMAN IN BLACK is first rate Hallowe’en fare at Kavinoky

THE BASICS:  THE WOMAN IN BLACK presented by the Kavinoky Theatre, directed by Kyle LoConti, starring Peter Horn and David Lundy, opened on October 29 and runs through November 21 on the D’Youville College campus in Buffalo, 320 Porter Avenue (716) 829-7668 ( Runtime: 2 hours, 10 minutes with one intermission (full service bar and snacks in the lounge)

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  We begin in an empty Victorian theater and what venue could be better than the turn of the century rococo-detailed Kavinoky with its heavy red curtains, balconies, and ornate molding?  We know the theater empty because the sole light on stage is a “ghost light” – the theatrical tradition of a constantly burning light when the theater is “dark.”  An older solicitor (what they call a non-litigating lawyer in Britain) named Arthur Kipps (David Lundy) is rehearsing reading a memoir aloud, presumably for some future audience.  Suddenly an actor (Peter Horn) bursts in and criticises Kipps’ reading.  It turns out that Kipps has hired the actor to help with his delivery.  After an argument, they agree to perform the story, with the actor (Peter Horn) now playing a younger KIPPS, and David Lundy playing all the other characters as well as narrating the play in the role of ACTOR.

So it’s a bit of a play within a play as we follow young Kipps to a small market town called “Crythin Gifford” to attend the funeral of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow and to remain there to sort out her estate.  At the funeral, he sees a young woman, with an ghostly face, dressed all in black, standing in the churchyard.

L-R Peter Horn as Kipps, David Lundy as a villager | Photo by Gene Witkowski

The villagers do not want to speak about the woman in black, and they are certainly not willing, not a single one of them, to accompany Kipps to “Eel Marsh House,” Mrs. Drablow’s former home, a victorian manse in the middle of a bog, cut off from the mainland at high tide, and prone to such fog that there is no visible separation of land, sea, or sky. So, alone in the house, Kipps begins sorting through Mrs Drablow’s papers, until he finds a box of letters, and ultimately discovers the dreadful secret of the Woman in Black.  This is not a Sherlock Holmes mystery, but if you remember “The Hound of the Baskervilles” you get the idea.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  Did you ever go trick or treating and there was one house that handed out full-size candy bars?  My parents called them “nickel candy bars” and they were highly prized.  Watching this play is like getting one of those.  Very satisfying.

Apparently this 1987 play by Stephen Mallatratt from the book by Susan Hill is the second longest running play on London’s West End after MOUSETRAP.  And with good reason.  Like any worthy mystery it starts off with the odd clue and reference here and there.  Little by little as we get more immersed in the story the tension begins to mount as the realizations begin to dawn upon us.

L-R Peter Horn as Kipps, David Lundy as a different villager | Photo by Gene Witkowski

Regular readers of my reviews will know how highly I regard the talents of both of the only two actors – Peter Horn and David Lundy.  While Horn might be playing the protagonist, Kipps, in an active manner, Lundy has heavy lifting to do as he portrays a variety of heavily accented locals.  Fans of WNED PBS might be reminded of the farmers in “All Creatures Great and Small” or any of the Scottish detectives over the years.  I can’t speak to the authenticity of the various accents but I can praise Lundy for consistency.  Once he starts a character, he stays in character.  And that ain’t easy.

Sometimes I mention the crew as a courtesy, but in this case each and every person pulled his or her weight and more.  Kyle LoConti once again kept each character and gesture focused on the plot.  And, if you might be thinking during the first ten minutes or so that things are a little slow, that’s only to set you up for the end.  The set design by David King at first might might also seem “phoned in.”  Just wait.  That’s all I’ll say.

If you might be thinking during the first ten minutes or so that things are a little slow, that’s only to set you up for the end.

King’s set comes to life with Brian Cavanagh’s lighting, sometimes revealing, sometimes hiding, always setting the mood which is further enhanced by the sound design of Geoffrey Tocin.

I have been criticized for comparing local Buffalo theater productions to The Shaw Festival which has a comparatively huge budget, year round teams working behind the scenes, extra personnel such as dramaturges and diction coaches, lavish rehearsal schedules, and weeks of previews before opening nights.  Those are just some of the reasons that The Shaw is, for our area, the gold standard.

However, we currently have two very Shaw-like shows running right now in town.  Over at Shea’s 710 there’s All For One’s production of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME (which is up through November 14th).  The other Shaw-like production is this play, THE WOMAN IN BLACK.  If you can’t get over the border, grab your Vax card and your mask and head over to The Kavinoky.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Lead image: Peter Horn demonstrates how to do a dramatic reading Gene Witkowski | Photo credit Gene Witkowski

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