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Review: London blockbuster 'Woman in Black' unleashes horror on the Pasadena stage

Review: London blockbuster 'Woman in Black' unleashes horror on the Pasadena stage
Bradley Armacost and Adam Wesley Brown in “The Woman in Black,” now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse. (Roger Mastroianni)

In this era of partisan politics, when we’ve begun to fear that nothing will ever bring our divided nation together, here’s a thought: Have we considered a good jump scare? It’s scientifically proven that being frightened, within a safe environment, causes the brain to release endorphins that lead to euphoria and warm fellow-feeling.

This phenomenon can be experienced now at the Pasadena Playhouse, where the long-running London blockbuster “The Woman in Black” is stopping on its first American tour. After you’ve shrieked in full-throated harmony with somebody, after you’ve clutched her hand in a vise-like grip and stifled your gibbering pleas for mercy against her shoulder for two solid hours, can you really consider her a stranger anymore? (While I’m on the subject, many thanks to the occupant of seat C13.)

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English writer Stephen Mallatratt adapted Susan Hill’s 1983 novel “The Woman in Black” for director Robin Herford, who was looking for an inexpensive holiday show, in 1987. The script calls for only two actors, minimal scenery and a handful of low-tech special effects — with which Herford and his design team devised an atmosphere of delicious dread punctuated with well-timed shocks. The unexpected hit moved a few years later to London’s West End and has been running there ever since. This American tour, helmed by Herford and the original designers, stars the charming Adam Wesley Brown and Bradley Armacost — neither of whom, I couldn’t help noticing, is a woman.

And that’s all I’m going to say about women, in black or any other color. (When you’re talking about a suspense thriller, spoilers are even more uncool than usual.) Like the novel, the play is narrated by an elderly man named Arthur Kipps (Armacost), who has written an account of something dreadful he experienced years before. The twist Mallatratt has added to the script is that, after having written the account, Kipps intends to read it aloud to his family and friends, hoping to exorcise this memory’s dark hold on him. He has even hired a young actor (Brown) to rehearse with him and liven up his delivery.

The actor turns out to have a strong directorial vision, far more elaborate than anything Kipps imagined, involving costumes and lighting and sound effects and actual acting. The actor assigns himself the part of the young Kipps while casting the real Kipps as all the other characters in the story.

Kipps protests at first, insisting that he’s not a performer. But from the moment he slips into his first role, his younger self’s jocular, rambling boss, he reveals increasingly virtuosic acting gifts. Meanwhile, the clever, meta-theatrical framework sweeps the audience up into the magic — reminding us how little is required, besides imagination, to set a scene. The performers start by reenacting the fateful day when Kipps’ boss sends him, a junior solicitor, to the village of Crythin Gifford on England’s North Coast to handle the estate of a recently deceased client: Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Kipps doesn’t learn much about Mrs. Drablow except that she was “a rum ’un” and kept a great many papers that might take more than a day to go through.

Bluff, good natured and slightly obtuse, like so many horror story protagonists, Kipps embarks on this adventure without the slightest hesitation. When he gets to Crythin Gifford, he’s more annoyed than alarmed by its “sea frets,” or sudden dense fogs, and the “propensity” he observes in the laconic locals “to let conversations hang in the air whenever Mrs. Drablow’s name is mentioned.” He sets off to spend the night at the lonely Eel Marsh House, oblivious to the quaking horror of everyone to whom he mentions the idea.

The beautifully paced chills and thrills that follow may be a bit gimmicky, but they’re so clever, playful, high-spirited and confidently performed that you can’t help being impressed and delighted, even as you’re jumping out of your skin. It’s probably a good idea to sit next to somebody you know — unless of course you’re in the mood to make a new friend very fast.

“The Woman in Black,” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 11. $25 and up. (626) 356-7529 or pasadenaplayhouse.org. Running time: 2 hours.

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