If you're a fan of Count Floyd, the host of SCTV's "Monster Chiller Horror Theater" that was on the tube from the late 1970s to early 1980s, have I got a show for you! Well, not really. Because Count Floyd's sketch bit, as enacted by comedian Joe Flaherty, was intended to be a sendup of the cheesy TV horror film genre. And it was hilarious.
However, The Woman in Black, which was staged last year by our local community theater, Clague Playhouse, is now on a national tour and is playing at the Cleveland Play House. It tries desperately to be scary, but it's about as frightening as Count Floyd, wearing his cheap vampire drag and speaking in his corny Bela Lugosi voice, trying vainly to scare little kids.
This play, which is definitely not a parody although it seems like one, has been a big hit in London for the past 30 years, which explains a lot about the British, who made Benny Hill a star. Based on a novella by Susan Hill (who evidently is no relation to Benny and who also is no Edgar Allan Poe), this adaptation by Stephen Mallatratt as directed by Robin Herford is long, boring and laughably inept when it comes to being scary. Indeed, you could visit any of the countless local Halloween haunted houses next month and get several bigger jolts than this play ever produces.
Let's put it this way: If you were chaperoning a gaggle of kids on vacation in a cabin in the woods and you knew those children possessed rather fragile natures, you might tell them a mildly diverting 20-minute spooky ghost story before beddy-bye. You might even point a flashlight in their eyes and make loud sounds now and then, to give them some shivers. But there would be nothing too terribly upsetting to disturb their sleep.
Well, the creators of this play have taken that concept and extended it beyond two hours, filling the time with interminable skeins of direct address storytelling. This format results in, of course, lots of telling and very little showing, a style that quickly becomes tedious for anyone over the age of 9. Or frankly, anyone under 9.
Admittedly, the play begins with some promise, as we are introduced to a young Actor who has been contracted to help an older gentleman, Arthur Kipps, dramatize terrifying events he experienced years before. Since the elderly chap is not a performer, the young fellow steps into his role and Kipps is persuaded to play other characters in the story.
This conceit is amusing for a while, as the old guy struggles to read his words with any sense of character, but that one-joke pony gets tired after a while and eventually elderly chap turns into an accomplished thespian so the story can slowly (oh ... so ... slowly) unfurl.
Since this play-within-a-play is set in the early 1950s, with extended flashbacks to 30 years earlier, it's performed in period costumes and, apparently, with an absence of any contemporary theatrical effects that might enliven the proceedings. Indeed, at one point an invisible dog is rescued from an invisible pit of mud, resulting in a non-existent sigh of relief.
The story itself is so predictable it verges on a spoof. There's a foreboding castle in a foggy bog where an old spinster died. The joint is called Eelmarsh House (oooh, scary!), and it's full of long hallways that we never see, dark rooms, a locked door that suddenly opens and, you know, things covered in sheets. All that's missing is Abbott and Costello and a portrait on the wall with roving eyes. Young Arthur (as played by the Actor) prowls around the place and meets some quaint gentlemen (as played by the real Arthur). Then young Art starts seeing apparitions, such as a woman in black who mysteriously appears and disappears in, you guessed it, the nearby graveyard. And on it goes. And on, and on.
Seriously, it feels like we're all being played and this is really an attempt at a fiendishly clever satire that doesn't quite work. The clues are many. The pre-show announcement carefully cautions people not to let their phone screens light up during the show, lest the production's delicate, low lighting effects be disturbed. Hell, you could have the house lights up full for the whole show and it wouldn't negatively affect anything.
Also, in the program there is an invitation: "Wowed by the set? Feel free to snap a photo before the show." This supposed wow-inducing set amounts to gray drapes, a chair, a stool, a wicker trunk and a clothes rack covered with a sheet. Eat your heart out, Les Miserables.
Credit must go to the two performers, Bradley Armacost as Kipps and Adam Wesley Brown, who plays the Actor. They work diligently and generate some much-appreciated chuckles from time to time, as this rickety ghost story lumbers to a close. Chloe Baldwin also participates briefly in the title role, a character so minimally impactful they forgot to include her in the program's cast list.
Are there any chills to be had? There are a couple tragic events at the very end of the play that, of course, happen off stage and which we are told about briefly. Don't want to give anyone bad dreams. 'Night, kids ...