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10/21/2010

The Arts

Multiples of one

 

The Turn of the Screw

Through Nov. 7 at Orlando 

Shakespeare Theater

www.orlandoshakes.org

$15-$38

Forget about chainsaw-swinging psychos and shuffling brain-eaters. Long before foam latex and computer-generated viscera, storytellers knew how to put a good scare into an audience with nothing but a flickering candle and a spooky tale. This Halloween, Orlando Shakespeare Theater takes us back to those simpler days with an evocatively atmospheric adaptation of The Turn of the Screw.

When building a house – even a haunted one – it helps to start with a solid foundation, and they don’t come more sturdy than this supernatural standard. Novelist Henry James (The Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller) originally published his now-classic novella as a 12-part Collier’s magazine serial in 1898. In the century since, the tale has been referenced and reinterpreted by everyone from Peter Straub (“Ghost Story”) and Nichole Kidman (The Others) to Star Trek Voyager’s Captain Janeway. 

OST’s new take on Turn, scripted by Jeffrey Hatcher, strips the story down to its essentials. In 1872 England, an unnamed Irish governess (Suzanne O’Donnell) accepts an invitation from an eligible but elusive bachelor (Eric Hissom) to take charge of his orphaned niece and nephew. The boy Miles (also Hissom) has been expelled from school for spreading unspeakable “corruption” among fellow students, while his sister Flora has fallen mute. Isolated at the Elsinore-esque Bly House in Essex, with only the elderly housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Hissom again) for adult company, the governess soon discovers a legacy of decadence and self-destruction has infested the estate. Forbidden from contacting the children’s guardian, the governess confronts incorporeal evil in an eerie (if ambiguous) struggle for her charges’ souls. 

The psycho-sexual implications of James’ story have been debated for decades: Are the ghosts genuine phantasms or just Freudian figments of the governess’ repressed desires? Director Anne Hering doesn’t tip her hand, crafting a balanced production that could support either interpretation. Whether courageous or crazy, O’Donnell is compelling throughout, creating a nerve-wracking tempest with little more than her voice. Even more wonderful is seeing the return of Hissom to the Shakes stage, where he ruled for so many years. Watching him seamlessly slip in and out of his multiple characters is a master-class in effortless acting. And the pair are superbly supported by Bob Phillips’ stark set and Eric Haugen’s sumptuous lighting, which transforms a staircase and armchair into an ominous oubliette of gothic fantasy.

My one criticism is that the superb comic timing Hissom and O’Donnell display in the early scenes extends too far into the story’s darker chapter. While initially effective in seducing the viewer, softening them for later shocks, the laughs eventually undermine the eerie tension the tale requires. The title refers to the elevated emotional stress levels the governess endures due to the presence of two jeopardized juveniles; but when one kid is invisible and the other played by an adult, the gut-twisting tapers off. Perhaps it’s the inherent absurdity of watching the balding, bearded Hissom writhe around as a perversely precocious pre-teen boy, but despite the actors’ best efforts I couldn’t achieve the bone-chilling catharsis the climax intends. That caveat aside, this handsome, well-crafted spook story is an ideal antidote to the severed limbs and spurting blood that saturates this season.

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