BWW Review: THE TURN OF THE SCREW at Middlebury Actors Workshop is a Frightfully Fun Evening of Theatre
"Seems does not make it so." -Jeffrey Hatcher
A letter, a locket, a riddle, a name. In Middlebury Actors Workshop's latest production, The Turn of the Screw directed by Melissa Lourie, the audience is invited into a sinister mystery and is asked to weigh from whence the evil comes. But do not expect easy answers. This 1996 adaptation by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher plays with and manipulates ambiguity and uncertainty using clever word play and double meanings to intentionally create confusion and heighten the tension of Henry James' 1898 gothic horror story.
This stripped down adaptation--originally developed and premiered at Portland Stage Company's Little Festival of the Unexpected--involves only two actors. Grace Experience, an actor based in New York City, plays the role of The Woman: a young, naive governess who is given charge of two young children at the behest of their distant and disinterested uncle. Vermont actor and playwright Bruce Campbell plays The Man, a role which encompasses all other speaking roles: narrator, uncle, housekeeper, and 10-year-old Miles.
Campbell explains, "What I love about this play--it's very different from a lot of other theater you see now--is that everything that goes on is done onstage by the actors--we have no costume changes, no huge set changes, we have no props. The sound effects are made by me, onstage, live. So the only thing you really have to scare the wits out of the audience is just what the actors do and the way they deliver the lines and it's very effective."
It is indeed striking that this pared down storytelling can convey such a sense of anticipatory dread. The unseen ghosts of the story are often located out beyond the fourth wall of the audience, creating an eerie sense that we are sitting in close proximity to evil throughout.
And while there is no sound design to speak of, the lighting plays a potent part in the production. Lighting designer Jamien Lundy Forrest creates powerful, ambient moods with well-timed lighting shifts, punctuating and emphasizing key twists and turns in the plot. In one particularly notable scene, she is able to capture both actors in close proximity on the stage to one another but with lighting that is drastically different from foreground to background--one actor held motionless in a watery tableau while the other gesticulates frantically throughout the moment's crisis. To hold these two stage pictures in such stark contrast with such precision is a testament to Forrest's skillful design.
Scenic design by Elinor Steele Friml and costume design by Marykay Dempewolff are beautifully spare while avoiding being overly-simplistic. We still get detail and period touches, but most everything exists to support the drama without being fussy or stealing focus. The one exception to this was the brightly-colored petticoat that was often visible underneath Ms. Experience's solemn and austere black dress. This costume piece was conspicuous in contrast with the rest of the design, so often visible to the audience, it could only be interpreted by this reviewer as being a symbolic or metaphorical choice. Given the many threads and layers that run through James' story, this works well as yet another element to discuss with fellow theatergoers after the curtain has gone down.
I speak of a metaphorical curtain, however, as Lourie converted the Town Hall Theater into a thrust configuration with audience on three sides of the stage for this production. Normally set up in a more conventional proscenium format with a generous apron play space, this setup may well have cost the small company ticket sales due to the more intimate arrangement and the choice to keep the balcony seating closed, but it was ideal for creating close quarters for ghosts and gasps. This staging will also travel well to Burlington's FlynnSpace black box theater later this month.
The real stars of the evening, of course, were our two actors under the capable direction of Lourie. Bruce Campbell, a well-known member of the Vermont theater community, shone as he morphed his voice and body between the myriad characters he portrayed. His Miles skewed perhaps a bit younger than 10 years old, but made up for it by being skin-crawlingly creepy; Campbell's Mrs. Grose had a compelling journey from start to finish, ultimately convincing me she might be the only one with any ground underneath her feet at all.
Grace Experience, a native Vermonter who got her start in acting right here in Middlebury, was well-suited to the role of the governess. She conveyed youthful drive and passion--a woman who is "rather easily carried away." Her energy never flags for an instant. Indeed, the success of the drama depends upon her winding up, up and ever up until her growing convictions become galvanized into irrefutable truths--at least in her own heart and mind. Although she appeared to be struggling with a cold in addition to unwanted apparitions as we pushed into the final third of the play, still she persisted, giving Middlebury a skillful and thoroughly enthralling performance right through to the twisted, bitter end.
This show is great fun to see with friends. Plan to go out after the show to hash out the finer details over drinks or a late supper. Campbell observes, "The theater is occupying a place people don't know they want, and then they encounter it and they're grateful - they're back to the fire in the cave." That invitation beats hoofing it to the latest blockbuster iteration of Halloween in my book any day. And it is certainly best not to be caught out alone after you make the imminently wise decision to go see this production of The Turn of the Screw.
Middlebury Actors Workshop presents "The Turn of the Screw," by Jeffrey Hatcher:
At Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, November 1-4, 68 South Pleasant Street, Middlebury, VT 05753 $12-$22. For tickets or info, call 802-382-9222 or visit http://www.townhalltheater.org.
Encore performances at the Flynn Center, November 15-16, 153 Main Street, Burlington, VT 05401 $25. For tickets or info, call 802-863-5966 or visit www.flynncenter.org