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August 16, 2023

‘The Woman Under the Stage’ Review: A Different Kind of Stage Fright

By Drew Tinnin

Any theatre coach worth their weight will tell their students that if they have any other workable skills, it’s best to follow another pursuit besides acting. The amount of rejection, self-doubt, and desperation that comes along with the profession just isn’t worth subjecting yourself to. Of course, passing the audition and actually getting the part only leads to even more abuse once you walk out onto the stage.

Director Ezekiel Decker’s psychological horror film The Woman Under the Stage depicts that lonely, pained existence with an authentic eye as if he understands exactly what it’s like to lay your passion bare. Acting in its purest form can blur the line between the performer and the audience. But Decker and co-writer Logan Rinaldi would rather explore what happens when an artist truly loses themselves inside the role of a lifetime.

Accepting a mysterious invitation, struggling actress Whitney (Jessica Dawn Willis) agrees to meet with a domineering director named Terrence Durrand (Matthew Tompkins) who makes her a very strange offer. Intrigued, Whitney accepts the lead role in an unorthodox play that’s never been performed before. By committing to the production, she and the entire cast must live in the theater for two months in total isolation. They’re then instructed to rip up the pages and burn them after the first live performance. Forced to confront their own demons, the real question becomes whether or not they will survive long enough to make it out of rehearsals.

During a tense moment early on, Whitney explodes on stage saying, “I just want my name to mean something,” revealing her true reason for wanting to act above all else. Her mother, a once promising young starlet, sacrificed her budding career to become a mother, a fact that starts to haunt Whitney more and more. That invites other ghosts to peer out from behind the theatre walls, including the tragic playwright who gives Whitney a stark, foreboding warning.

As the jump scares start to mount, The Woman Under the Stage becomes more of a claustrophobic social experiment. The performers are pitted against each other as they grapple with their own insecurities and fragile egos. The deeper they dig emotionally, the more they begin to unravel. Fear becomes the main motivator that starts to make their performances take shape and become that much more believable. A real knife even becomes an essential prop in the production adding a much more frightening sense of verisimilitude.

Also Read: ‘Where the Devil Roams’ Skillfully Sews Pathos Into the Carnage [Fantasia 2023 Review]

Inevitably, a horror film about acting needs to have a great core central performance, and luckily Willis (who bears a striking resemblance to Yellowjackets star Lauren Ambrose) absolutely delivers on that front. In addition to playing Whitney, Willis also essentially gives a dual performance as she becomes more and more connected to her character Penny within the play itself. She also manages to help sell the scares a bit more, which admittedly don’t have much of a lasting jolt. Although The Woman Under the Stage may not be referring to her specifically, Willis still manages to steal the spotlight.

Most actors wind up playing themselves, only ten percent happier or ten percent sadder than they are in real life. Decker’s sizzling horror indie is exploring what happens when an artist can’t even tell the difference anymore between who they are and the character they’re portraying. If that idea had been taken to its extreme, The Woman Under the Stage could’ve been truly unsettling. Instead, there are times when the need to provide jump scares overshadow the more compelling narrative about just how much suffering goes into the art we make and consume.

As one dark specter states towards the end of the film, “Every artist has seen their dreams turned to nightmares.” If anything, the plot of The Woman Under the Stage could introduce an extreme new acting technique to rival the Stanislavsky and Meisner Methods. By the time the credits roll, a method to the madness is revealed that warns all the artists out there that there’s always a little bit of madness in the method.

Tags: the woman under the stage Yellowjackets