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Black on Black

Don't try this at home



The very nature of experimentation should suggest a healthy willingness to end up with egg on your face. The high-risk practice would make gamblers cringe, a fearless adventure in trial and error when common sense and conventional wisdom are stacked against you. There is something admirable in the try, try againing. Even when the only known destination is a dead end of doom.

It is an act of mercy to call The Woman in Black experimental rather than some of the less kind terms the play conjures up. But the blown fuses and frayed wires that short-circuit this show are inherent in Stephen Malatratt's script. The biggest fault The Star Bar Players can be saddled with is the decision to produce it.

The show is billed as "a ghost play," but The Woman in Black is about as scary as scrambled eggs. Depending on your devotion to pro-life politics, even the eggs have an edge over this script. The play is mercilessly dense, leading its audience into an elaborate, layered set-up without any hint of a payoff. It's a play within a play, and, to make matters worse, the principle character is a lawyer turned writer, threatening the theater with a cumbersome manuscript that frightens us with the promise of ennui.

Mr. Kipps has enlisted the help of an actor to bring to life his meandering tale. The actor assures Kipps that the story will cause an audience to "one by one expire with boredom." He seizes the script and proceeds to complete the cold-blooded killing of the audience, two hours later echoing our own sentiments when he proclaims, "Let us have done with it, for God's sake." The actor indulges the occupational hazard of believing the play's success is dependent on the quality of the performance, but the lawyer's manuscript is beyond salvation. The story is plagued by passive characters who give the audience no reason to care about them and who play no role in determining their own fates, resulting in a void of tensely strung suspense. It is all exposition, a waiting game of watching the belabored details drawn out until someone finally whispers, "Boo!"

Adam Burns as Kipps has the unenviable task of creating a character who is scripted as "no actor." If Burns can summon genius to the stage, he can make an intriguing and humorous parody out of Kipps, but if he simply does his job well, he will look like a bad actor. Patrick Walsh has an equal challenge in playing a master actor capable of bringing the dead script to life. Walsh brings the script into the zombie-infested world of the undead, but he is not the miracle worker needed to reanimate the story. The sad irony is that his consistent stumbling over his lines mars an otherwise passable performance, ultimately grounding our suspension of disbelief.

While director Stephanie Brunson is to be commended for successfully leading her cast to create a variety of settings on the empty stage, the decision to use an entirely black-on-black costume and set design defuses the otherworldly quality of the title character, who ends up blending into the background rather than shattering the sense of the status quo.

Roderick Garrison offers the play its best moments as an inventive stage-hand whose minimal, understated presence lends the production a much-needed comic touch. His character also controls the sound for the play within the play, and despite its inconsistencies, the sound is one of the strongest elements in the production. Unfortunately, the best sound effect -- a ghostly musical performance that seeped through in the background, made even more haunting by the applause from unseen ghost guests -- turned out to be spill-over sound from a dance concert held in the adjacent City Auditorium.

Ultimately, while the ensemble is to be praised for pursuing the spirit of the experiment, The Woman in Black has no eureka moment to justify the performance of its aimless exploration.


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