Theatergoers love thrillers, once they get past the jolt of seeing a murder right before their eyes. In the end, good overcomes evil.

STAGE FRIGHTS

March 25, 1998|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN STAFF

A campfire glows at night, making shadows leap and dance. Ominous noises echo in the woods. People gather around, scaring each other with ghost stories.

It's an innocent and beloved pastime and one at the core of the play opening tonight at Center Stage.

"The Woman in Black" is the first thriller in Center Stage's 34-season history, but thrillers and murder mysteries are time-honored theatrical favorites. On London's West End, where "The Woman in Black" has been running since 1989, it is second only to Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" (now in its 46th year) as the longest-running non-musical.

Back in the United States, a revival of "Wait Until Dark" opens on Broadway in April. And though there will probably never be a glut of mysteries and thrillers -- in part because they're difficult to stage and in part because of competition from TV and films -- the genre remains a regular feature at summer stock and community theaters.

In "The Woman in Black" -- adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill's novel -- the ghost stories are being told indoors on Christmas Eve, instead of around a campfire. The effect, however, is the same.

"It's an exorcism -- the whole idea of telling a [ghost] story by the fireside, or Greek tragedies, was sharing something that's terrible," says the director of the Center Stage production, Tim Vasen.

"The Woman in Black" is about a middle-aged British lawyer who remains tormented by a horrifying experience at the start of his career. He hires a young actor to help him tell his tale and lay it to rest. At the core of that tale is one of mankind's most primal fears -- the death of a child.

One reason mysteries and thrillers are so appealing is that they not only create a terrifying or mysterious situation; most important, they resolve it. "The theory is that the moral universe has been set at odds, and the triumph of reason shows that we can solve our dire problems," says New York mystery writer and theatrical director Marvin Kaye.

Center Stage's Vasen agrees. "Something so catastrophic as the death of a child might be easier to accept if we can ascribe a reason for it," he says. "We'd all feel better if we knew there was a vengeful spirit."

"There's some kind of primal release in seeing how the hero or heroine is going to make their way out of it," adds Leonard Foglia, director of the Broadway revival of "Wait Until Dark." "You could get really high-minded about it -- good and evil, and good always shining through. You could not do one of these that did not have that. It's very reassuring."

Accomplishing this on stage, however, is a delicate business. The late Dame Agatha Christie, who adapted several of her novels into plays, wrote of the process, "[A murder mystery] has such an intricate plot, and usually so many characters and false clues, that the thing is bound to be confusing and overladen. What was wanted was simplification."

Kaye, who has taught mystery writing for 22 years at New York University, takes this idea a step further, explaining that, though there have been numerous hit plays that are mysteries, the theater may not be the ideal medium for the mystery form.

A bit of a puzzle

"It is essentially a complex puzzle, and when you see those kinds of puzzles on stage, there's little chance of the audience solving them," he says. "You can't sit back and ponder, or slip back to an earlier chapter. It's bound by the time experience. The other part is that the denouement of a mystery is a climax of reason rather than emotion. It's essentially anti-dramatic."

The element of puzzles or games is the chief way mysteries differ from thrillers and ghost stories. A mystery is "almost mathematical, logical," it deals with facts, whereas ghost stories deal with the supernatural, says Jill Rachel Morris, dramaturg of Center Stage's "The Woman in Black." "Ghost stories, on some level, are just meant to scare you."

But though "The Woman in Black" is not hampered by elaborate puzzles or clues, it still presented challenges for its stage adapter, Mallatratt, who wrote the script as a Christmas play for a theater in Scarborough, England. Although the playwright had the permission of Hill, the book's author, he admits, "She thought it was a mad idea."

Hill's worries primarily concerned the portrayal of a dog, who plays a key role in the drama, as well as a pony and carriage that is one of the story's scariest effects. Mallatratt's solution to these problems, as well as the problem of a relatively large number of characters, is ingeniously theatrical.

He moved the story out of its setting in the remote English countryside and into an old Victorian theater, casting one actor in the role of the narrator and another in all the remaining roles. Such haunting images as the carriage are created by technical effects and suggestion.

Scared of the unknown

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