BE UNAFRAID ... BE VERY UNAFRAID
by John Topping
published November 8, 2007
The Turn of the Screw
now playing Off Off Broadway at the Bank Street Theatre
through November 17
It is difficult to create a truly scary moment in the theater. Even in a film, to be sitting in one's seat, terrorized, is rare. In
both mediums, usually the best one can hope for is the shock of surprise. In my theatrical
recollection, the only time I remember jumping from fright was in Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman"; but even then, like most films, it was an
(extremely effective) instance of being caught off guard by an unexpected flash of light and screech of sound. True suspense is certainly
attainable, but actually sitting steeped in fear is something I have yet to experience theatrically.
Perhaps the best we can hope for, in our delight at being taken to emotional places that normally we would try to avoid, is a feeling of
creepiness. This is something that, in the right hands, theater can accomplish just as masterfully as film. And so to herald the
first performance of an adaptation of Henry James' creepy novella "The Turn of the Screw" (which spawned the creepy film "The Innocents") on
Halloween night, it immediately promises to deliver something that we wish would be scary, hope will be creepy, but at the very least expect to
satisfy some ethereal Halloweeny feeling.
"The Turn of the Screw" is the story of a governess hired to care for an uncle's orphaned niece and nephew on a large estate. She is warned
that previous governesses have not worked out, but brushes off any misgivings with spirited optimism. This includes his strict orders that,
no matter what happens, he is not to be contacted for any reason whatsoever, allowing him to resume his life in town unabated. This leaves
her alone on the estate with only the little girl, Flora, who doesn't talk, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. Word soon comes that Miles,
the strong-willed and elusive boy, will be returning from boarding school early because he has been dismissed for unspecified reasons. But
the real trouble starts when the governess begins to see previous employees on the grounds that she soon learns have been dead for over a
It's definitely enough to give you the creeps. Now add a Caligari-esque floor plan by Mark Delancy and dark black costumes by M'arion Talan
which play against the rich warm lighting by Karl Chmielewski, and the five characters (plus a book-ended narrator), played by Melissa Pinsly,
Steve Cook and ... and ... just two actors? Okay, so Pinsley will cover the female roles while Cook plays ... oh, he plays all of the roles
except for the governess? Including the housekeeper? And the young boy Miles? (But never mind the little girl and the ghosts,
since they never say anything.
This is a conceptual disaster. The only way for it to work is to be done with unequivocally stunning brilliance. The English accents
must be pitch-perfect and the transformations from character to character must be so seamless that we either forget that it's the same actor or
marvel that it's the same actor. It is not fair to criticize their performances because they have been given a nearly impossible task. It
doesn't help that Cook wears a coat-tailed suit that suggests the era for his first character but merely distracts with all the others; not to
mention the presto change-o transitions of awkwardly switching positions or turning around on the spot (directed by Don K. Williams).
Much of this could be forgiven or overlooked (or, who knows, maybe it could even work) if not for the text of the adaptation itself (by Jeffrey
Hatcher). Basically the story is being narrated (although, for the bulk of it, not by the narrator) and the scenes, such as they are, are
largely dramatic illustrations. But almost from the very beginning all the way to the end, it commits the worst sin of all – complete
boredom. It is the most tedious 90 minutes I have experienced in quite some time, and that I might ever be that bleary-eyed again is the
scariest thought of all.
johntopping @ stageandcinema.com