Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Turn of the Screw (Theatre in the Black 2019)

The Turn of the Screw was one of the first tales by Henry James I read. Unlike Daisy Miller (which I found to be subpar, and which turned my wife off of Henry James completely), James’ atmospheric and influential ghost story caught my imagination. Later writers, such as Shirley Jackson, would cite The Turn of the Screw as a significant influence in their own writing. In particular, the ambiguity as to whether the apparitions are real, or if they are all in the head of the protagonist, has inspired practically a whole genre. 

Bakersfield is blessed with a vibrant local arts scene. In the last few years in particular, there have been a number of outstanding theater productions by several different groups. The newest group is Theatre in the Black, which focuses on darker works, typically with very small casts, and unusual venues. 

This particular version of The Turn of the Screw was Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation for a cast of two. The unnamed protagonist, a young governess, was performed by Caroline Fox. All of the other roles were handled by Bryan Maddern. These included the narrator (brother of the governess), the aristocratic uncle who hires her, the housekeeper, and the young boy. 

The script itself is fairly stripped down, but Theatre in the Black took it a few steps further toward minimalism. The performance was at The Guild House, a historic home transformed into a restaurant and event location. (I have played a few weddings there back in the day.) It certainly looks the part of the old mansion, although it is more Edwardian than Victorian. The larger room, essentially a living room, was used as the location. Roughly 25 chairs set at tables held the audience, and a small area in front of an elegant fireplace served as the stage. The only lighting was the candles and dim lights at the tables and on the walls and so on. One could consider it just a bit brighter than candlelight. There were no special effects. Not even sound effects. There were no costume changes. Everything was done by voice and body language. The apparitions were manifested only in the way the actors reacted to them. 

The play adheres pretty faithfully to the story. Like the original, key details are doled out slowly and incompletely. There are a few minor differences. (The one that came to mind is that the daughter eventually speaks in the original, but not in the play - because she exists only in the mind - no actor portrays her.) James never truly finished the narrative, but instead left it at a tragic point. We never do find out what happened to the other characters, and things are never actually explained. Which is exactly what James intended. 

One difference that was particularly noticeable was in the interpretation of the governess’ actions as connected with her repressed sexuality. This is nothing new, of course. I think it was in the 1930s that this theory was first set forth. The thing of it is, James’ writing is, if anything, about as unsexual as possible. Thinking back on the books of his I have read, it is kind of notable, actually, how he can write so well about emotional entanglement, and yet seem so sexless. There is some evidence that James himself was asexual. He never appears to have had a romantic relationship, although he was quite social and had friends. So, when I read The Turn of the Screw, I didn’t really see it as sexual - although romantic was at least possible. On the other hand, there is an argument to be made in favor of the sexual connection. In Hatcher’s version, the ties to sexuality are obvious - and they work pretty well. 

This was a thoroughly enjoyable production. Both actors were outstanding and compelling. The timing was spot on throughout. The setting enhanced the experience, and everything felt intimate. 

 Caroline Fox and Bryan Maddern
TitB publicity photo

I should also mention the “opening act.” Immediately prior to the play, Rikk Cheshire, performing as Edgar Alan Poe, read “The Raven.” I am always in favor of hearing poetry performed aloud - there is too little of that in our all too prosaic world. Cheshire captured the cadence, and brought the poem to life. I particularly appreciated the fairly deadpan “Nevermore.” In my view, Poe intended that the single word contrast with the increasingly fevered and desperate agony of the grieving man. 

This was my first time seeing a Theatre in Black production, but I think I may have to see some more. The production was of excellent quality, with a strong focus on artistic values. 

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