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Who you gonna call? (l-r) Carnahan and Hicks in The Woman in Black.

Sophisticated Spectre
By James Yeara

The Woman in Black
Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt, from the novel by
Susan Hill, directed by Charles Towers
Capital Repertory Theatre, through Oct. 17

The Woman in Black’s onstage “ghost light”—an old stage term for an electrical or gaslight left burning onstage after a performance or rehearsal “so the ghosts won’t think they’re left alone and cause mischief”—is literally a brilliant touch. The quaint white glow, from a single electric bulb atop a 5-foot pole just right of downstage center, makes the perfect image and creates the ideal shadows for Capital Repertory Theatre’s excellent play. The image and its eerie shadows begin and end this two- hour excursion into horror—horror not of the superficial spurt-of-blood kind, but of the mind. It’s the sort of subtle theatrical touch that marks this play within a play (centering on the thin line between the real, the imagined, and the fantastic) as a success.

The second-longest-running play in London’s theater history (after the infinitely more banal The Mousetrap), The Woman in Black is not for youngsters or those suffering from ADD; this three-actor play is English to its core, full of words and a subtle massaging of the theatrical imagination. Playgoers needing a splash of dash and flash every few seconds to stay focused will stare slack-jawed and unmoved by this smart play. A meta-play about the attempt of a haunted lawyer, Arthur Kipps (Harry Carnahan), and a young, blustery Actor (Munson Hicks), to put on a play about the spirit that has ruined Kipps’ life, The Woman in Black started slowly but built inexorably to moments of real fright and terror.

Aided by John McDermott’s cluttery attic of a set (trunk, wooden table, and assorted wooden chairs, including a self-starting rocking chair), a goose-flesh-instilling light design by Brian J. Kittenthal (window panes of slanting light fade to black shadows), and a fright-filled sound design by Benjamin Emerson (listen to it: I dare you), director Charles Towers creates the kind of engrossing theatricality that hooks a smart audience and lands it, reeling, through the darkness, the shadows, the screams (both recorded and from the audience). When a locked door suddenly opening onstage or a program accidentally dropped in the crowd provokes gasps, you know that you’re in a master’s hands.

The three-person cast does chillingly effective work. Carnahan is on the top of his game, creating the nervewracked older Kipps, and then the assorted characters and accents Kipps encountered during his initial encounter with the Woman in Black (a disciplined Leah Hennessy, who achieves chills with just a specific tilt of her black-veiled head). Hicks creates both a believably vainglorious and self-
important actor and a younger Kipps, whom the audience soon not only likes, but empathizes with. The Woman in Black is the type of sophisticated theater that achieves its ends subtly but fully and with complete and utter horror.

Gangs of Cohoes

West Side Story
Book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, words by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Nicholas Garr
C-R Productions, Cohoes Music Hall, through Oct. 3

With all the wonderful songs and music in West Side Story, it’s easy to forget how much of the show’s power comes from the virtually non-stop choreography created by Jerome Robbins. Nicholas Garr, who was chosen by Robbins to recreate the role of Bernardo on Broadway in a retrospective of the master’s work, has somehow managed to bring the energy and movement of the show’s big dance numbers to the Cohoes Music Hall’s smallish stage in a production that goes a long way toward showing local audiences what Broadway is all about.

On a two-level set, designed by Tony Rivera and expertly lit by Andrew Gmoser, full of chain-link gates and walls that give the cast plenty to grab onto, the “American” Jets and their rivals, the Puerto Rican Sharks, battle it out for their meager share of the streets in 1950s New York City. The tension between the two gangs fills the theater from the prologue to the closing scene. Thrust into the middle of this rivalry is the Romeo-and-Juliet story of Tony, who founded the Jets with his friend Riff but now wants to move on, and Maria, the newly arrived, extremely sheltered sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks. Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (played on Broadway by Chita Rivera and in the 1962 movie by Rita Moreno), starts off as guardian to Maria, who has been promised to Bernardo’s friend Chino, but eventually agrees to help her bring her and Tony together. As in every Shakespearean tragedy, however, it’s not to be. There are taunts, fights, an amazingly staged rumble between the two gangs, and, at the end, needless but somehow unavoidable death.

The cast of this production contains some terrific performers who act and sing in equal measure—and do both at the same time, always a plus in a musical. Michael Buchanan as Tony, Michael Scibilia as Riff, and Rivera, who is also C-R’s producing director, as Bernardo are top-rate. As Maria, Malaika Sims has a lovely operatic voice that hits all the high notes of Bernstein’s score. Michele Tibbitts as Anita has less of a voice than the others but loads of verve, especially in the dance numbers. Sadly it was hard to understand much of the dialogue between Anita and Maria, due to their heavy accents and Sims’ tendency to turn her face shyly away from the audience. The huge supporting cast—among them Todd Stern as Arab, Christopher Brady as Baby John, and Joe Phillips as Shrank—work hard and do a fine job of making their individual characters stand out.

Some quibbles: Granted that it’s hard to live up to a score so familiar that every missed note is obvious, but occasional stumbles by the brass and wind instruments were distracting. For the most part, though, musical director Patrick Young, brought in at the last minute, and the musicians did well with this ambitious piece. I also admired the costumes by Jenn Dugan and the authentic ’50s hairstyles, but the gang jackets worn by the Jets looked more like Ritchie Cunningham’s nerdy windbreaker than Fonz-style leather jackets likely to brand a guy as a juvenile delinquent. Overall, though, C-R has succeeded in bringing an artistic vision of young urban angst to life in a setting not all that different from New York’s immigrant neighborhoods of 50 years ago.

—Kathy Ceceri


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