Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Woman in Black
Mesa Encore Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Kiss and Tell, The Phantom Tollbooth and Hedwig and the Angry Inch

J. Kevin Tallent and Tim Fiscus
Photo by Candice C. Thornton and Wade Moran
About to celebrate its 29th anniversary in London's West End, Stephen Mallatratt's theatrical adaptation of Susan Hill's 1983 gothic novel "The Woman in Black" is one well-crafted drama that proves worthy of its long running status. Mesa Encore Theatre's taught production is fortunate to have two talented Valley actors who elicit plenty of thrills and chills in this spooky ghost story.

Set a century ago, Mallatratt's adaptation of The Woman in Black begins on the stage of an empty theatre in England where Arthur Kipps has hired a younger actor to help him dramatize the events that he experienced years ago when he was a solicitor. Kipps was sent to attend the funeral and sort through the papers of a reclusive widow who lived in an old house on a marsh in a remote city in Northern England that was cut off from the mainland and only accessible at low tide. Kipps decides to spend a few nights in the deserted house in order to expedite the process of going through the widow's vast number of documents but in doing so encounters strange and frightening noises, voices, and ghostly images. The traumatic experience and the appearance of an apparition of a woman dressed in black with skin tautly stretched across her bony, wasted face have haunted him for years and he believes that acting out the events for his family and friends will free him of his ghostly nightmares.

Hill's novel has been adapted for both TV and radio in the UK as well as a 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe as the young Kipps. However, those were all mainly straightforward versions of the novel's plot of Kipps' experiences from the past, while Mallatratt's idea to turn Hill's novel into a play within a play and have two actors play all of the parts is a brilliant move. Not only does it provide a fun, theatrical air for the proceedings, but it roots the entire plot in the tradition of telling ghost stories where one person usually plays all of the characters. Mallatratt's idea to have the Actor play the younger Kipps and have Kipps play all of the people his younger self meets provides a perfect way to blend the two men and Kipps' horrific story together. Mallatratt also adds a coda at the finale that extends Hill's story and provides a nice, spooky ending to the whole affair.

While MET's modern black box space is far from an old fashioned traditional Victorian theater, director Virginia Olivieri has done a very good job in instilling a timeless sense to the production and ensuring her actors embody their numerous roles explicitly. Tim Fiscus and J. Kevin Tallent play the Actor and Kipps, respectively, and both are excellent in providing different voices, body language and gestures, along with the use of simple props and costume pieces, so the many parts they play are distinguishable.

At first, Tallent is timid, quiet and shy as the older Kipps who claims to have no acting experience. As the story proceeds and we shift back and forth between the current period, with the two men talking about the play they are presenting, and seeing them bring the vast number of characters they depict to life, Tallent is excellent in portraying the numerous men the younger Kipps encounters on his journey. Fiscus has the slightly meatier part of the young Kipps, who is overcome by emotion and the frightening encounters he experiences. With focused eyes that pierce out into the audience and a firm grasp on the vast demands of the role, Fiscus' haunted, traumatized portrayal of this young man is superb.

As good as this adaptation is, and while it only runs two hours, there are a few drawbacks due to the abundance of detailed narration and the fact that many people who haven't seen the play before will come into this expecting to be scared relentlessly throughout. The first act is more setup and takes a while for all of the elements of the piece to fully jell, but the second act is rewarding with more of the spookier moments and shocks and that really nice ending. In addition to the numerous narrative moments, there is also a lot of detail in the script, with the descriptive dialogue evoking the images of the various locations and people Kipps encounters. But both Fiscus and Tallent navigate their way through it with ease with each monologue or illustrious exchange providing more important information of the ghost story to the audience.

Olivieri's staging is smart and not overly showy, and her efforts, coupled with set designer Cheryl Briley's simple yet effective set pieces and Emma Walz's evocative sound design, quickly create, with just a few chairs, a bench and a chest, the various locations of the story, including a horse drawn carriage and the swampy, deadly marsh. Matt Stetler's lighting design provides nice shifts between the rehearsal segments of the play and the scenes of the play within the play, including some provocative spooky dark moments, though on opening night there were some issues in the second act where the lighting was too bright and didn't seem to be working correctly. Once that issue is resolved I'm certain the second act will be even more disturbing and frightening.

While it may not have the explicit imagery of blood and guts and horrific scenes that modern-day movie audiences are used to seeing in R-rated horror films, The Woman in Black is filled with spooky moments, some sudden shocks, and detailed characters that are the basis for a good old-fashioned ghost story. With two talented actors, concise direction, and creative elements that are both subtle and scary, MET's solid production of this long running West End hit is ghostly fun.

The Woman in Black runs at Mesa Encore Theatre through October 22nd, 2017, with performances at the MET Black Box Theatre at 933 East Main Street in Mesa AZ. Tickets can be ordered by calling (480) 644-6500 or at

Director / Costume Design: Virginia Olivieri
Set & Prop Design: Cheryl Briley
Lighting Designer: Matt Stetler
Sound Design: Emma Walz

Mr. Kipps: J. Kevin Tallent
The Actor: Tim Fiscus

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