‘Woman in Black’ offers classic scares for Halloween

“Woman in Black” has quite a pedigree behind it. Stephen Mallatratt’s play, based on the 1983 Gothic horror novella of the same name by writer Susan Hill, has been playing in London since 1987, making it the second longest-running play in West End (London’s version of Broadway) history (only beaten by “The Mousetrap”).

Penfold Theatre is getting spooky for its Halloween season production, the hair-raising ghost story “Woman in Black.”

This Halloween, Penfold Theatre, 7 Towers Theatre and the Austin Scottish Rite Theater have joined forces to bring the spooky story to local audiences.

In Hill’s original novella, the story of “The Woman in Black” is structured around the reminiscences of a London solicitor named Arthur Kipps, who faced both supernatural horror and devastating personal loss as a young man when he was assigned to handle the estate of a reclusive woman in the small town of Crythin Gifford. Mallatratt’s play cleverly creates a theatrical framework around this story by having Kipps enlist the help of an unnamed actor in order to portray on stage the events of his haunted experience. The actor ends up playing Kipps, while the real Kipps assumes every other role. In the process, both men come to discover that sometimes the past doesn’t stay hidden and that stories can be dangerous to both the teller and the listener.

The Scottish Rite Theatre is the perfect venue for this spine-tingler as it allows director Emily Rankin and scenic designer Christopher Conard to play with a cavernously large stage that has an eerie, “Inferno”-sequel mural looming in the background. Lighting designer Patrick Anthony makes fantastic use of this space and manages to create a variety of scenic changes and dramatic effects through lighting alone (something incredibly important for a play that relies on shadows and light as an integral part of the story).

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Stephen Price as Kipps and Kareem Bader as the actor are both solid in their roles, convincingly shifting between multiple character layers throughout the tale’s meta-theatrical unweaving. Bader is particularly good at creating a compelling aura of unease that helps boost the play’s uncanny atmosphere.

“Woman in Black” has had such a successful run in London for a reason: It is a classic piece of entertaining, imaginative theater that has the ability to enthrall audiences when it is at its most potent. Despite a very slow start, the Penfold/7 Towers/Scottish Rite production builds up to that atmosphere, thanks to Price’s and Bader’s performances, Anthony’s innovative lighting and Rankin’s creative staging conceits. It’s not the flashiest or most cutting-edge of shows, but it effectively tells Mallatratt’s and Hill’s eerie story, a perfect fit for the Halloween season.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 29, with no performance Oct. 21 and additional performance Oct. 30
Where: Scottish Rite Theater, 207 W. 18th St.
Cost: $18-$25
Information: penfoldtheatre.org

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The Vortex’s bloody ‘Vampyress’ is an adults-only Halloween treat

According to Guinness World Records, the most prodigious female serial killer of all time was Countess Erzsebet Bathori, who lived in Hungary in the 15th and 16th centuries, where she is said to have tortured and murdered hundreds of young women. The dark, bloody story of Bathori is hardly fodder for light musical comedy, but it is the inspiration for a different kind of stage musical — writer and composer Chad Salvata’s “Vampyress.”

Melissa Vogt and Hayley Armstrong star in “Vampyress” at the Vortex Theatre. Contributed by Kimberley Mead

Co-produced by Ethos and the Vortex Theater, “Vampyress” is a gothic opera tinged with chords of modern and electronic music that brings an element of dark magic to Bathori’s violent story. The Vortex has mounted the show several times before, to much audience acclaim, and they bring it back now as a dark treat for the Halloween season.

In some ways, “Vampyress” is a departure from the Vortex’s typical fair. The company has become known, and acclaimed, for timely, topical works that speak deeply and directly to contemporary issues of social justice, providing a sorely needed platform for minority voices amid the Austin theatrical scene. Some of that work tends to be relatively bare bones, focusing on actors and ideas over large-scale production values.

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“Vampyress,” on the other hand, is a much more timeless tale of sex, death and passion (in the sense of both passionate sensuality and passionate suffering) presented with extravagant music, lights, costuming, props and special effects. Ann Marie Gordon’s set combines with Jason Amato’s eerie, flickering lighting design and Salvata and Stephanie Dunbar’s ornate, intricate costuming (complimented by Amelia Turner’s makeup design), turning the small theater into an anteroom of hell and physicalizing Salvata’s gothic score.

Special note should be given to stage manager Tamara L. Farley, who keeps an entire show full of complicated lighting, sound and effects cues running smoothly, all to the extremely specific timing of an operatic score.

Directed by the Vortex’s artistic director Bonnie Cullum, “Vampyress” is something of an ode to female empowerment, even when taken to the extremes of brutality practiced by Bathori. As such, the entire cast is female, which surely made for an easier rehearsal process given the copious amounts of nudity present in the show. Though at times excessive, the nudity is never exploitative and in fact comes to have potent meaning in the show’s final moments.

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Although the entire cast is highly talented (a necessity to simply pull off an opera filled with nudity, blood-letting and choreographed torture), Melissa Vogt’s star turn as Bathori is truly a standout, carrying the countess’ story from regal aloofness all the way through to crimson-stained feral breakdown. Hayley Armstrong, as the sorceress Davila, also provides a noteworthy performance, bringing an ethereal, otherworldly sense to the character that gives the opera some of its most frightening moments.

Full of nudity, violence and literally buckets of blood, “Vampyress” is a Halloween treat for adults only, a macabre evening of excess slightly in the vein of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. Amid that cruelty, though, there is a seed of dark and violent beauty, and Salvata’s opera leaves its audience disturbed, aroused and more than a little afraid.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Oct. 28
Where: The Vortex, 2307 Manor Road
Cost: $15-$35
Information: 512-478-5282, vortexrep.org