Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October, 1999
Last year I found the Shakespeare & Company Halloween Benefit show to be great entertainment and very poor theatre. This year I found it to be sporadically great theatre, and still a good Halloween thrill besides.
The evening really begins when you get out of your car and begin the trek through the woods to the Wharton Theatre which is in the salon of The Mount. A great many overly cheerful young people in Victorian costume greet you - incessantly - as you walk along the drive. At first it seems welcoming, then annoying, and finally eerie as voice after voice calls out "Hello! Enjoy the show!" You just KNOW you're in for it.
Then the evening takes a decided downward turn as you obliged to sit through a "ghost story" from a member of the company. Rumors of The Mount being haunted were probably inevitable, and it is fun to hear if company members have unusual experiences on the grounds, but you would think with all that acting and writing talent on board that someone could script these tales a little better. Corinna May and Ty Skelton look just smashing in their Edwardian gear, but they stutter and stumble over their story - even though it is supposed to be personal experience. For goodness sakes, write it down and learn your lines, folks!
Then "The Woman In Black" gets started for real. The play by Stephen Mallatratt is based on the book of the same name by Susan Hill. Overall it is a fairly typical tale, with the untimely death of a child leading the distraught mother to haunt the landscape. The device Mallatratt uses to liven it up is an odd one. He has dramatized the book by framing the play with the attempt of the main character to dramatize the book. Mr. Kipps (Robert Lohbauer) appeals to a young actor (Mark Woollett) to help him bring his experiences to an audience so that Kipps can purge the horror from his mind once and for all. That means that Woollett ends up playing Kipps while Lohbauer plays everyone but Kipps, except when he is Kipps, which gets confusing. In fact it got so confusing at a crucial moment for me, that the climax of the play was ruined. But perhaps the rest of the audience did a better job of keeping straight who was Kipps when, and therefore were appropriately shocked and horrified while I was sitting there in a daze.
The first act of "The Woman In Black" is performed in the Wharton Theatre, followed by an intermission at which delicious cider and doughnuts are served. Then you are led back up the driveway to the Stables Theatre for the second act. During the walk you are once again tormented by those hordes of costumed young people, only this time they are anything but cheerful. They are wailing and moaning in front of you, behind you, beside you, all around, in the dark.
I will confess that at first I was disappointed in the content of the "haunted walk" portion of the evening because all these ghouls seemed to be keening the same lament. Last year there had been a different scary spectacle for every group of actors, and it had been fun to see what was next. This year, with the same thing over and over and over, I found it less scary than annoying. But then I saw the second act and realized that this year the events of the walk actually tied in with the plot of the play, and I ceased to be disappointed. It really does all fall together.
The second act in the Stables is by far the stronger act theatrically. Woollett and Lohbauer are joined by Laura Gates as, what else, The Woman in Black, and scary stuff starts happening. The cast and director Kevin G. Coleman take minimal scenery and props, and, with the generous assistance of the lighting designed by Steve Ball and the sound effects designed by Thomas Bandla, create a dark and spooky world.
If you have never been to the Shakespeare & Company Halloween benefit, it is a good seasonal outing - different from the standard apple-bobbing parties and trick-or-treating. Very young children, and ones who are especially sensitive, will find it too scary, but the average child over eight will think its kind of cool. I highly recommend "The Woman In Black" as a family Halloween treat.
"The Woman In Black" runs through October 31 at Shakespeare and Company's home at The Mount, 2 Plunkett Street in Lenox. The show runst two hours with one intermission. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999