Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Turn of the Screw

It is that time of year again, when thrill seekers of all ages flock to local theme parks to scare themselves silly, ghosts and ghouls are abundant on television, the movies are overrun with the paranormal, and local theater companies do their best to frighten the audience. Imagine if you will a secluded gothic mansion in the English countryside, two mysterious deaths, one wide-eyed governess and two orphans left to their own devices and you have the makings of a gloomy Victorian ghost story. Based on the novella by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw has always proved to be a bit of a conundrum to me. Is there any coincidence that the characters are confronted by riddles throughout the story. I think not. I have read the story, watched several film versions and now on stage, and I'm still not quite sure what happens.

Are there really ghosts? Is the governess going crazy? What did Miles do at school to get himself expelled? Why doesn't Flora talk? And why does the uncle insist that he should never be contacted regarding the children? All questions that are never really answered. Oh, many things are alluded to but nothing is clearly stated. Could it be more ambiguous? No, I don't think it could.

I usually enjoy the bare bones approach of this company's use of sets, props and even cast members, but this Anne Hering directed production of The Turn of the Screw relies too heavily on the audience's indulgance. There are only two members of the cast - Suzanne O'Donnell as the governess and Eric Hissom as everyone else - the narrator, the uncle, Miles, Mrs. Grose, and even sound effects. Flora is invisible. It gives the production a bit of a comic bent. And to be honest the first several minutes of the play were more funny than scary. Or was that the plan, to catch the audience off guard? The dark and moody set is sparse - a painted backdrop, a few chairs and a staircase. The staircase landing doubles as upstairs rooms (use your imagination).

O'Donnell and Hissom are regulars of The Orlando Shakespeare Theater company. Hissom was beguiling as the uncle and a little sinister lurking about the stage imitating the wind or a bird's lonesome cry. But I found the switches between young Miles to eldery Mrs. Grose distracting. Although entertaining, the character changes definitely took away the fright and added tongue-in-cheek silliness to the production. However, O'Donnell's bloodcurdling scream brought back the fright and her often out of breath delivery put you on edge. The audience is captivated as it watches her slow decent into... well, I'm not really sure into what - is it madness or terror?

Although my attention was held throughout this entire production, I've never really enjoyed this story. I guess I am bothered by too many unanswered questions. Are the children possessed or is the governess going nuts? Or is it both? You be the judge when you see The Turn of the Screw now playing at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater until November 7th.

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