The Turn of the Screw
by Jeffrey Hatcher from the Henry James story
Directed by Ken Cerniglia
Featuring Christina LaFortune and Vince Gatton
Two Turns Theatre Company at Merchant’s House Museum, 29 E 4th Street
production web site: http://www.twoturns.com/
November 11-14, 2010 and November 18-21, 2010
Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
November 14, 2010
Sunday evening on an unseasonably warm autumn evening in the Village. Crunchy leaves underfoot, some street construction midblock, the random urban rat scurries by, a garage where street vendors park their carts over night. La Mama down the street. And everyone knows where “the haunted house” is — my theatrical venue for the evening, Merchant’s House Museum at 26 East 4th Street. Seems a perfect place to hear a well turned tale. Bonus points for a story with ghosts and mysteries and dark shadows and possibly crazy children. In this case, our small group assembles (there is room for less than 40) for the 70-minute two-actor multi-character adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher of Henry James‘s story. The play is solid, the setting enchants, the actors are game, and the performances and the production do not quite achieve the evocative mood and haunting quality of this piece.
First: the script and the story. I am familiar with the arc of the story when i sit down in the double parlor second floor performance space this particular evening. I know that two actors will be telling a story that unfolds over an eight-day period, during which a young, inexperienced but strong governess at a remote country estate with household staff takes over the care of two young children. She has been hired by the London-based guardian uncle of the children and accepts a never fully explained condition of her employment: that he not be disturbed. She arrives to find a mute young girl, a housekeeper protecting her, a misbehaving son who suddenly has been expelled from school, and a mystery that unfolds, with hints at past suicides and mysterious strangers through windows, day by day and night by night.
Layers of characters are captured by Vince Gatton (a housekeeper, the adolescent male charge of the governess, a distant yet financially responsible uncle) through voice and physicality. Christina LaFortune takes on the through line of the young governess. And both actors perform ceaselessly for the entire 70 minutes, in a relentlessly paced story telling style that may have been intended to evoke breathless intensity. For this audience member this similarity of tone became tiring rather than thrilling.
The challenges with this production are certain choices in direction by Ken Cerniglia. Certainly we have the charm of the house space and lowered lamps and an attempt, as the “Director’s Note” reads “to re-create a Victorian storytelling environment that the Tredwell family might have offered guests in 1872 when our tale is set.” This aim is not entirely achieved as both storytelling as recitation as well as fully staged performances are presented. We as audience members are arrayed along the walls across two joined long and narrow rooms that provide fabulous mirrors against which the actors play but most audience members cannot see. For the whole of the play the audience members are forced to spin their heads back and forth as the players play back and forth, as in a tennis match, craning quite often to see around corners. I found myself wishing that the production had arrayed all seats, in rows, in one of the two conjoined rooms, as the family indeed might have done themselves for an evening of storytelling in 1872. With this choice, current day audience members could settle into a vantage point and relax into the experience of the story. The actors articulate all sound effects — foot falls, piano keys struck, clocks striking. This might have been done in “storytelling” context but director Cerniglia has staged this piece, with actors embodying the performances and pacing the length of the rooms. The production has evocative pre show music; these other sound effects would immeasurably enhance the mood.
I was never able to truly enjoy being in the house space as a setting for the story as I was straining to make it work as a conventional performance space as the piece is staged. The play itself is smart and powerful. These actors did admirably with the material. And while I heard the tale I never for a moment felt it. This is the inaugural production of Two Turns Theatre Company, in support of its missions to produce cost-effective intimate theatre in unique settings and to create new audiences. I look forward to their next production.
© Martha Wade Steketee (November 16, 2010)