by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move

It’s all about perception and lighting in the newest adaptation of Henry James The Turn of the Screw  currently being presented by the Visceral  Company at The Underground Theatre in Hollywood, CA.

In The Turn of the Screw, a young woman is sent to a desolate English manor house to care for two recently orphaned children.  As the new governess settles in, she learns of the illicit affair between her predecessor and the estate’s wicked valet – and their tragic deaths.  Ghostly apparitions  of the duo have her convinced that their spirits have returned, with sinister plans for the children.  But, the insurmountable question is, are the ghosts real, or only in her mind?

The Turn of the Screw is considered to be a Henry James novella where the chief character, the governess, is written, and left to be surmised by audiences, as both a heroine and a villain.  In all of the years and all of the versions of the play, which coincidentally, has even been featured as an opera, it has never been decided by the critics whether or not the governess is insane, or that she actually saw the ghosts that cause her suspicions with the children or the housekeeper Mrs. Grose.

The story is laced with latent sexual undertones.  It is said that the valet, Peter Quint’s character as gauged originally by Victorian readers was actually seen by them as a child molester.  Indeed, throughout this story it is more than suggested that Peter Quint had a sexual hold on everyone starting with Ms. Jessel, the former governess, with whom he had engaged in an ongoing, physical, immorality.  This emotional ‘turn of the screw’ plays upon the fragile mind of the new governess.  It eventually incites a deep violence within her as well as the children, leading to the demise of the household entirely.

Nich Kauffman and Amelia Gotham in The Turn of the Screw

There is a back history of the story within this play.  Mile’s expulsion from school, by his own admonition, was because he ‘knew’ things other boys didn’t.  It is this admission that begins an other-worldly battle between good and evil webbed by a series of riddles in the fight to protect the beautiful, untouched innocence of the children.  And as the governess sees them as innocent, at first  the children’s orchestrated pranks seem only to stem from a desire to have their uncle come down to visit them – something they also know the governess wants.  How to construe the facts, is what the governess cannot decide.

We begin with a traditional story telling style forth wall broken, characters directly speaking with the audience.  From the start, the play is in the full force of its malevolence and sexual carnality as the opening scene between the governess and her new employer more than suggests seduction between the two.  They even talk of the children themselves seducing her with their loveliness – or will it be the other way around.  There is a definite wicked attraction between them.

Born to the family of a strict, cold, somber pastor, and bred with a stoic religious upbringing everything about her imminent undertaking is beguiling to this young woman.  She has never experienced anything so imaginative before except for Bible stories, interrupted by the rare and secret occasional fiction which her father,  would burn, when discovered.

The one edict she is given, is that she never, under any circumstances, contact her employer about the children, their welfare, education or anything else about or going on at the estate.  It is this occasion that brings about a quick devolution of  her spirit and innocent mind.

Left entirely alone with nothing to cling to but her own reflection in her bedroom mirror (a fascination she had never known until now, never having been allowed a mirror before), her reason, will and determination become fierce weapons that will ‘save’ them all. Because … “There is nothing like a child in pain” …and it must be stopped.

This production introduces us to the phenomenal talents of actor Nich Kauffman who brilliantly and without exception plays the man, the boy (Miles), the girl (Flora) who never actually speaks, the employer, and Mrs. Grose the housekeeper.  Mr. Kauffman’s performance, his exposition of character work, delivery and speech, is, in a word ‘un-paralleled.’ His co-star, Amelia Gotham who plays the feverish governess is uncanny and breathtakingly beautiful, with a heady emotional life that effusively weaves this story .  Well directed, hilarious wit and ‘adapted’ repartee allow this production to fly, to dash, to dart, in an accelerated pace that culminates in a confrontation between the ghosts and the governess in a final delirious expiation and triumph over the evil of Peter Quint.

The drama of The Turn of the Screw is incredibly intensified by the lighting in this production designed by Dave Sousa, a 2011 LA Weekly Theatre Award Nominee.  At a chance meeting outside the theatre before the show, Mr. Sousa spoke about how much detail went into creating the effects, mood and scene changes.  “I normally don’t get to be this creative.  But this being a two person show, there is a lot more than can be done in a lighting design.  It’s a lot of fun. It’s also a lot more specific” – a fact made clear by how many changes I viewed during the show which were indispensably effective.

Minimal set design by Tyler Aaron worked very well and bared no interference.  Historically accurate costuming by Erica D. Schwartz also set the tone.

Directed by Dan Spurgeon.  Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher.
Run time 90 minutes.  No intermission.