Reduxion Theatre readies production of The Woman in Black 

click to enlarge David Fletcher-Hall and Matthew E. Ellis during a "The Woman in Black" rehearsal at the Joel Levine Rehearsal Hall at the Civic Center Music Hall, Monday, Sept. 19, 2016. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • David Fletcher-Hall and Matthew E. Ellis during a "The Woman in Black" rehearsal at the Joel Levine Rehearsal Hall at the Civic Center Music Hall, Monday, Sept. 19, 2016.

Opening just in time for Halloween, The Woman in Black will inaugurate Reduxion Theatre’s Season Nine: Evolution at Civic Center Music Hall. For Tonia Sina, who took over as artistic director in May 2016, the concept of evolution signifies an opportunity to explore new approaches, tell new stories and build new relationships while honoring the spirit of immediacy and innovation that has distinguished Reduxion since it was founded in 2007.

The Woman in Black, which allows Sina to fuse Reduxion Theatre’s contemporary, minimalist approach with her own interests in horror and Victoriana, seems like an ideal place to begin.

Victorian era

“I’m in love with the Victorian time period,” Sina said. “It’s far enough away that it seems antique to us, but you can still relate to it. In most scary movies, they have to find ways to disable the phones, disable the TV, disable all the technology that we have now, because we’re so connected. In the Victorian time period, there’s none of that. You have candles, you have lanterns and you’re on your own. Isolation is part of it, not being connected to other people.”

Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill’s 1983 gothic novella of the same name, The Woman in Black has been performed in London’s West End theater district since 1989, making it the second longest-running play in West End history.

It relates the strange tale of Arthur Kipps (portrayed by Matthew E. Ellis), a man tormented by a supernatural encounter. Working as a junior solicitor, Kipps traveled to the remote village of Crythin Gifford to settle the estate of a deceased client. While there, he found himself drawn into a tragic and unsettling local mystery. Still haunted by the experience years later, Kipps rents a theater and hires an actor (portrayed by David Fletcher Hall) to help him reenact the traumatic events of that period. Together, they invoke the vengeful spirit of the mysterious Woman in Black in hopes of banishing her once and for all.

Intimate production

Directing a two-person cast for the first time, Sina was struck by the inclusive, collaborative atmosphere that developed behind the scenes.

“Everybody on the design team and everybody on the creative team has equal parts in the project. Everybody has as much input as anybody else. It’s really a team effort, which is unique and really cool, because everyone feels like they own the project.”

She also feels fortunate to be working with veteran actors like Ellis and Hill, whose precise, nuanced attention to mood, movement and dialogue helps bring the chilling story to life.

“They make my job much easier,” she said. “Exploring the script with them and finding layers in the script that I wouldn’t normally have been able to find with less experienced actors has been great.”

The fact that Ellis is also her husband has contributed to personal discoveries.

“It’s the first time I’ve directed him in a show, and that’s an interesting position to be in,” Sina said. “I’m learning how to direct my husband, which is new and funny, and also when to talk work and when not to. … As a director, I always want to talk about the show all the time.”

Mysterious imagination

The Woman in Black’s play-within-a-play structure puts an austere, modern spin on the traditional ghost story, blurring the line between fiction and reality. In the absence of elaborate sets or a wide array of props, the theater becomes a character in its own right.

“Space is so important when you’re doing a show. I picked [Freede Little Theatre] on purpose because to me, it’s the most haunted place in this city. It’s an old space, and we’re going to use that to our advantage.”

Yet beneath the production’s deceptively simple surface lies an intricate, technical marvel that marries old-fashioned storytelling with deft sleight-of-hand.

“[I’m] fascinated with the darker side of manipulating an audience, using fear, using confusion, using diversion techniques; masking things so they don’t always fully know what they’re seeing all the time,” Sina said. “I love to keep my audiences guessing. I don’t want them to be ahead of us. And this is a great play for that, because there’s so much about it that’s a mystery.”

Most of all, Sina hopes The Woman in Black prompts viewers to engage both their eyes and their intellects.

“I want them to fall in love with using their imaginations. I hope that they can be immersed in the story and not just the spectacle,” she said. “I hope that that the story is enough, that the acting is enough to transport them someplace.”

The Woman in Black runs Oct. 14-29 in Freede Little Theatre at Civic Center Musical Hall, 201 N. Walker Ave. Tickets are $15-$35. Visit reduxiontheatre.com.

Print headline: Light trick, Reduxion Theatre’s production of The Woman in Black offers ghostly thrills. 

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Lisa K. Broad

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