PTC’s ‘Woman in Black’ leaves hearts beating, mouths agape, eyes popping in suspenseful yarn

Mark Chambers and Brad LaBree in Penobscot Theatre Company's 2013 production of &quotThe Woman in Black," which runs through Nov. 3.
Magnus Stark photo
Mark Chambers and Brad LaBree in Penobscot Theatre Company's 2013 production of "The Woman in Black," which runs through Nov. 3.
Posted Oct. 21, 2013, at 1:53 p.m.

Arthur Kipps needs help telling the tale of how he came to be so haunted. Naturally, he reaches out to an actor to school him in the art of storytelling.

That is how Stephen Mallatrat’s play, “The Woman in Black,” begins. It will not end calmly for either man nor for the audience once the Penobscot Theatre Company’s technical designers and crew work their wizardry.

Hearts will beat faster, mouths will gape open, eyes will pop wide and dread will set in like the fog that envelops Eel Marsh House. And theatergoers will be on the edges of their seats in the Bangor Opera House.

PTC’s artistic director Bari Newport perfectly paces the two-act show, allowing the suspense to build gradually. The start of the play is deliberately slow but the playwright and director carefully bait the hook, then reel in the audience.

As the story unfolds, San Francisco-based actor Mark Chambers as Arthur Kipps and Brad LaBree as the actor take on multiple roles. Chambers is especially delightful as the variety of characters that inhabit the village of Crythin Gifford, where answers to the mystery are unearthed. In an exuberant performance, LaBree gives the audience insight into who Kipp was as young man, before his life was upended by the woman in black.

It is Sean McClelland’s set, Jonathan Spencer’s complex lighting design and Brandi Rita’s intricate sound effects that make the production so effective. The setting of the play is a small Victorian theatre. McClelland’s set is full of what look like used set pieces and the flotsam and jetsam of former productions piled on every surface. These pieces cleverly transform into carriages, offices, trains and the great house on Eel Marsh.

The mood of the play waxes and wanes with the 200 or more sound and lighting cues. The fog rolls in and the hooves of the horses clack on the wet ground at low tide as someone’s screams fade away. The lights brightly illuminate the stage as the characters first meet, then fade as the sun sets on a train rolling north and, later, leaves Kipps alone in the dark of Eel Marsh House. McClelland, Spencer and Rita, along with costume designer Kevin Koski, are the real stars of “The Woman in Black.”

The show is a welcome success after the difficulty PTC has had in the past pulling off mysteries, especially ones starring Sherlock Holmes. “The Woman in Black” may just be the cure to that theatrical curse.

Newport gives no curtain speech before the show, so the ushers remind theatergoers to silence their cellphones and other distracting devices. It’s too bad they can’t zap audience members who talk during the performance as if they are home in front of their televisions.

The suspense of the show’s thrilling second act was broken time and time again during Friday night’s show by a trio of matrons who commented on what was happening on stage as if they were at a sporting event. Silence on the part of the audience is an essential factor in how successful “The Woman in Black” is at scaring people. So, mum’s the word.

Performances are set for Wednesdays through Sundays through Nov. 3, with shows at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are available at the PTC box office or by calling 942-3333. Those who have purchased tickets to the shows on either Oct. 31 also may purchase a $12 ticket to participate in a Ghost Tour of the Bangor Opera House immediately after the performance, led by the East Coast Ghost Trackers.

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