Intrepid Shakespeare Company gets the mood and macabre right in its briskly staged revival
By Donnie Matsuda
If death comes in threes, then perhaps ghosts come in twos.
At least that’s the case in The Turn of the Screw, an old fashioned English ghost story that was originally penned by Henry James in 1898 and later adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Hatcher in 1996. It is an eerie tale that spins its wicked web of intrigue and imagined spirits two by two. First, there are the play’s two main characters: The Man, played by Intrepid Shakespeare Company Co-Artistic Director and Co-Founder Sean Cox, who covers a number of supporting roles (including an ominous uncle who wants his niece and nephew looked after, a goosy housekeeper Mrs. Grose, and a bright but misunderstood teenage boy named Miles) and The Governess, played by Intrepid Shakespeare Company Co-Artistic Director and Co-Founder Christy Yael, who is brought to the barren country estate of Bly under the most mysterious of circumstances.
There, she is to care for two children: a teenage boy named Miles who was expelled from his boarding school for “corrupt” practices and a precious young girl named Flora who is so utterly haunted or so utterly shy (or both) that she can’t even speak a word. And the fascination with terrifying twosomes continues as the Governess begins to uncover more puzzling and disturbing details about the history of Bly manor. She learns from the estate’s bumbling housekeeper Mrs. Grose that the previous governess Miss Jessel and the manor’s valet Peter Quint (who together were quite a pair, apparently) mysteriously went missing and subsequently turned up dead. Soon, the Governess begins to see and hear the ghosts of these two house servants and becomes increasingly convinced that they are there to terrify and corrupt the innocence of the two children in her care.
Of course, whether these ghostly visions are real or simply exist in the pent-up psyche of the Governess is a matter still debated to this day. In the play, we see everything though the eyes of the crazed Governess and witness both her real life interactions with the children and Mrs. Grose, while also hearing her verbalize the narrative-based thoughts racing through her head. Hatcher’s tightly-wound 75-minute script heightens the tale’s horror by focusing on the psychological drama and emotional trauma of the piece, but at the end of the play, it offers no real answers or easy solutions. It goes out on a limb in some respects, but doesn’t quite have the gripping, terrifying, and suspenseful quality one would expect from a chilling emotional thriller.
Fortunately, however, Intrepid Shakespeare Company’s production knows how to set the scene properly for this eerie tale and while it can’t completely overcome the lack of tense trepidation in the script, it still manages to tease and taunt with its creepy seduction. Most of its success is due to the two bravura performances delivered by the dynamic duo of husband-and-wife Sean Cox and Christy Yael. Yael captures both the dry wit and mounting hysteria of the Governess perfectly, while Cox shows off his versatility as he masterfully morphs from one supporting character to the next and then back again in the near blink of an eye. Together, these two terrific actors play off each other with an ease and eeriness that brings out the best (and the worst) in this quintessential ghost story.
Director Jason Heil also deserves credit here for stepping back and allowing the trancelike tale to do its own seductive storytelling. As he strips away the conventions of the typical ghost story genre (there are no creaky doors or paranormal phenomena here), he instead relies on the talents of his two formidable actors and the ripe imaginations of his audience members to lend more than mere substance to the shadows. Heil’s brisk staging is further aided by a first rate technical team, which showcases simple stagecraft at its finest. Matt Scott surrounds his multi-level platform set in black curtains and allows the three-quarters-in-the-round audience to experience the intimacy and darkness that this haunting and harrowing play demands. And lighting designer Jason Beiber does a stellar job at casting the right shadows and coloring the right moods, while costume designer Beth Merriman features her ghoulishly Gothic creations to the sinister sounds of Adam Brick’s sound design.
With great economy, Intrepid Shakespeare Company manages to capture the macabre mood and ambiguous ambience that is at the heart of Hatcher’s play. While it may not be the most profound piece of theatre, it’s still a formidable Turn for the small Encinitas-based company and it is proof positive that two is always better than one.
Things to know before you go: The Turn of the Screw presented by Intrepid Shakespeare Company plays at The Clayton E. Liggett Theatre at 800 Santa Fe Drive in Encinitas through April 15, 2012. Running time is 75 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Wednesdays – Saturdays at 8pm; Saturdays at 3pm; Sundays at 2pm and 7pm. Tickets are $25 with discounts available for students, seniors, and military. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (760) 652-5011 or visit www.intrepidshakespeare.com.