Saturday, November 03, 2007

PLAY: "The Turn of the Screw"

Photo/Wandrille Moussel

In the tradition of the cryptic riddles proffered by the creepy ghosts and creepier children of Henry James's canonical tale The Turn of the Screw, let me ask you a question: What is the most frightening thing one can see on the stage? This is a question I actually can't answer this Halloween, as Jeffrey Hatcher's 1996 adaptation of James's story (now in production by Wake Up, Marconi!) is rather tame, and far from unsettling. Karl Chmielewski has the lighting down cold, filtering the governess's overexcited nerves through a black-drenched design, but the rest of the show isn't haunting, at least not in a good way.

The Turn of the Screw relies upon an unreliable narrator, one of those governesses destined to help fill a madhouse somewhere, and Melissa Pinsly does fairly well at not being believable. Her frenzy comes in an inaccessible froth, but she does not seem mad so much as to be playing mad. This exaggeration confuses the point James seemed to be making about repression becoming manifested in the flesh; more importantly, it keeps the play from maintaining any tension. And then there's Mr. Hatcher's terrible choice to make all the other characters into "The Man": no offense to Steve Cook, but it would be hard even for an excellent actor to slip from Mrs. Grose, the old maid, into the precocious child, Miles, without coming off as very pretentious and silly. Cook, who dryly drawls his words as a narrator, or lilts in a poor falsetto as the child and maid, is unable to seem anything but affected, which just makes the play less believable.

It would take an excellent director to salvage this poorly planned (but well-written) adaptation, and there are moments where Don K. Williams strikes upon a nice bit of staging, using the lightly raked floor to play with distance and darkness. But he, too, falls into unintentional comedy with the choice to make the sound effects verbal rather than recorded (even though he opens and closes the play with a classic tune): Mr. Cook is forced to plunk on the piano with sounds whispered through his clenched teeth, and later to literally "footfall" and "creak" across the boundaries of a darkened stage. How could there possibly be ghosts under such ridiculous circumstances, and if there were, how could one possibly be frightened of them? That's the riddle I leave you with, readers, though I'm sure you already know my answer.

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