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Idaho Shakespeare Festival review: Director creates fresh ‘Woman in Black’

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Chad Hoeppner*, Dudley Swetland*

By Dana Oland- Cast and design team make this ghost story satisfying if not frightening

Copyright 2010 Idaho Statesman. Published 9/6/2010

One of the most difficult things to do in a theater is to truly scare audiences, especially in the 21st century when people are inured to most things that slash, scream, or go bump in the night.

Yet that is the goal of “The Woman in Black,” Stephen Malatratt’s theatrical adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story. The play has enjoyed a chilling 22-year run at London’s Fortune Theatre, a jewel box Victorian theater where it is much easier to control the theatrical environment.

In the great outdoors of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival amphitheater, making this play work is a different kind of challenge. Fortunately, with director Drew Barr at the helm, this stellar design team and seasoned cast make the show – if not actually scary – at least suspenseful and ultimately satisfying.

The production starts off slow, but that’s because the play is almost entirely exposition, something most playwrights avoid. After all, theater is a medium of show, not tell. However, telling is something that’s intrinsic to a ghost story, which is best heard round the campfire.

To translate that to theater, Malatratt’s adaptation uses stagecraft as storytelling. The play tells a ghost story; but it is really about theater.

That’s clear from the moment you set eyes on Russell Metheny’s excellent set. It is the outline of a theater with borders, lights, scaffolds and a fabric scrim that divides the stage and becomes see through when lit. There are bits of old sets, props and boxes stashed around that get pulled out to build the world of the play. Behind the scrim is the mysterious Eel Marsh House.

The cast and crew employ a host of theatrical devices, including mime, sound effects, lighting, props, smoke, mirrors and other visual tricks, and most important, imagination. Read more