Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw is one of my favorite works committed to paper, being a wonderful macabre pastime that my Grandmother and I used to share together, acting out the roles as we read along. I feel it is truly one of the most important staples of Gothic Literature. With every read or artistic version (such as the film The Innocents) a new strata of possibility can be found in the characters, who are as fascinating now as ever. Two Turns Theatre Company’s amazing adaptation of this piece has put their finger on the pulse of these characters, and found an innovative way to share a classic tale.
The story centers around a young Governess (a riveting Christina LaFortune) who is hired to care for two young children by their wealthy uncle (a brilliant Vince Gatton, in one of his several roles of the evening) who lives in London. While captivating the young woman with his charms (“There. I’ve seduced you!” he exclaims when she agrees), he makes it clear that he does not want to be disturbed or informed about anything to do with the children, and the young governess is sent off to Essex where the niece, Flora, is being cared for by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. Flora’s brother Miles, arrives home soon thereafter, apparently from being kicked out of school. Soon, the governess begins to see a mysterious man and woman on the grounds of the estate and in the windows, staring at the children – and begins to believe that the ghosts of the former governess and her lover have come back to steal the children away from her.
When I was informed that the play was only two actors (one of whom would be playing at least four roles) and only 70 minutes, I was curious how they were going to pull it off, mostly in relation to the time frame. This whole novella, as a play, in so little time? I didn’t have worries about the multiple roles. Vince Gatton, one of my favorite actors, is very familiar with playing multiple roles in a show (having played 35 separate characters on stage in two different plays before). His ability to use physicality is remarkable. In this production he plays male and female roles, including Mrs. Grose and Miles.
Let me just go on the record and state that this production WORKS, and all in just over an hour. Two Turns and director Ken Cerniglia totally sell this – and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s one-act adaptation is thrilling to watch and experience. LaFortune ‘s slow descent that blurs the line between her sanity (or lack thereof) and the supernatural is a joy to watch. Critics of the original novella were always divided on whether the governess was mad or the ghosts were real; I very much enjoyed Hatcher’s version, which gave the character a new dimension and asked even stronger questions about the bizarre relationship between the children and their previous caretakers. Gatton’s portrayal of the 10-year-old Miles was profoundly eerie, and the show overall was very suspenseful, even after having been very familiar with the original story.
Instead of a theatre, the play is performed in the Merchant House Museum on East 4th Street, a 178-year-old home that is a preserved landmark that maintains its 19th century integrity inside and out. Proceeds from the production go to help generate income for the non-profit Victorian home. From the moment you enter the building, you are greeted by the quiet hush that comes from incredibly old homes. The fact that the historic dwelling is rumored to be haunted only adds to the luscious ambiance. Upon being seated in an upstairs parlor surrounded by the ornate furniture, drapes, gorgeous mirrors and gaslights, one realizes that the home is also an actor in the piece – it’s more than just a set. When you think about it, if this story was being told back in the 19th century, people would have acted out the roles by candle light or oil lamps, in much the same manner. The way the show is deftly staged in the space by Cerniglia, allowing the actors use of both ends of a narrow playing area so that all the audience can see them and effectively tell the story, was a learning experience for me.
The fact that the company has made it its mission to give back to the community by donating the majority of the proceeds from their productions to non-profits such as the Merchant House (while showing off the home in such a delightful fashion) is wonderful. The idea is becoming more prevalent nowadays, thankfully: create theatre in ways that can help the community while maintaining artistic integrity. I only hope that Turn of the Screw, which only ran for six performances, returns soon for a longer run.