A most unique dramatic compact is made with the audience in the production of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw that opened Thursday night at the Underground. This ghost story does not have any specific effects. The sound effects are produced by the actors on stage, who announce the bumps in the night, count the clock chimes after midnight and hum the lullaby.
A governess (Amber Goodspeed) is hired by a man to look after his nephew and niece following the death of their parents. Soon after, the governess begins to see the figures of a man and a woman on the grounds of the man’s country estate.
Luke Moravec plays the other required parts in the tale, giving each one a distinct physicality so that after they are introduced, the moment he appears on stage you know which one he is playing each time. That sense of physicality extends to a nice moment when one of those characters shelters an unseen little girl. (Read more about the original novella here.)
Director Nathan Carlblom makes effective use of Camille Saint-Saëns’s eerie “Danse Macabre,” a work that is contemporary to the time frame of the story, although most audience members who recognize it will do so because of its use in the “Hush” episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
For James, ghosts are not wailing banshees in the middle of the night, but strange and sinister specters that link to the real world because, as someone once said, “the evil that men do lives after them.”
The scariest ghost is not the random mischievous poltergeist haunting a location, but the one linked by invisible chains from beyond the veil to a living person. It is the Governess’ growing conviction that those ghostly figures are tied to the two children in her charge that drives this story.
There is supposed to be some ambiguity at work here, but Goodspeed’s performance does little to lend itself to the “insane governess” interpretation. I have little sympathy for anything that would present itself as a ghost story only to imply in the end there is no such thing, so I readily endorse this approach.
The adaptation is by Jeffrey Hatcher, a playwright who is quite popular in Duluth, where productions of Compleat Female Stage Beauty and Tuesdays With Morrie have been staged in recent years.
The scenic design by Curtis Phillips explores the verticality of the Underground space. Two-story-tall drapes of black and red frame the stage, with branches stripped of leaves descending from the ceiling along with a crystal chandelier.
The set is a series of wooden platforms, set at oblique angles, with the outskirts of the largest level covered in fallen leaves. An armchair and tree stump are the only set pieces. The net effect is sort of minimalist gothic, sketched out for the audience to fill in the requisite shadows and referenced objects. (With barely a set and no props, how did director Nathan Carlblom approach this script? Find out.)
Of course, this perfectly mirrors the form and function of the play, where the imagination of the audience is the final key ingredient. You will not be scared by “The Turn of the Screw,” but you will be moved.
IF YOU GO
What: The Turn of the Screw performed without intermission
Where: The Underground (506 W. Michigan St. / Lower level of the Duluth Depot)
When: Tonight and Saturday at 7:30pm, and Feb. 5-7 at 7:30pm
Tickets: Adults – $16; Students – $12
For information: (218) 733-7555 or duluthunderground.org
This review originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on January 29, 2015 and was written by Lawrence Bernabo.