There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
When was the last time theater literally raised the hair on the back of your neck?
If you’re having trouble remembering, get out to Round House before its tightly wound Turn of the Screw vanishes: Kathy Feininger’s staging is deliciously scary stuff, an unsettling, atmospheric showcase for two talented actors working at the top of their form.
Two actors? Indeed. Jeffrey Hatcher’s lean script adapts Henry James’ novel of supernatural and psychological terror as a vehicle for one womanJane Beard as the nameless governess who finds horror inhabiting a country houseand one manMarty Lodge as a housekeeper, a narrator, the governess’s employer, and Miles, the oddly charismatic boy-man she’s been sent to look after. Miles’ sister, Flora, who doesn’t speak, goes unseen here.
So do the ghosts that the governess seems to see in the darkened and drafty corners of Bly estatethe shades of her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and Peter Quint, the sinister manservant who seduced and destroyed that unfortunate woman, and who now seems intent on doing the same to the children. Benjamin Britten’s operatic version of the story brings the baleful twosome onstage, giving Quint a seductive, melismatic musical vocabulary with which to ensnare his targets; Jack Clayton’s film The Innocents threatens Deborah Kerr with similarly corporeal specters. But The Turn of the Screw has always been about the governessher spiraling fear, her growing obsession, her repressed desire always warring with Victorian rectitude, and her determination to win the battle for Miles’ soul at whatever cost. Knowing this, and knowing that the audience’s imagination will supply more terrors than he could possibly put into his script, Hatcher keeps his ghosts in the shadows.
Which seems right: The housekeeper never sees the governess’s ghosts, and the children never admit to seeing them. Why should they be any more solid to the audience? Their invisibility preserves the uncertainty that gives James’ novel all its shivery power: Is Miles’ eventual destruction the work of a supernatural creature or of the governess’ subconscious? Is she trying to protect him or to possess him? Does the boya sexually aware 10-year-old, thanks to Quint and Jesselbecome a stand-in for the unattainable master of the house, for whom the governess has conceived a naive passion? If this is a story about predatory sexuality and child abuse, who’s the main offendera man who walks the next world, or the woman still anchored, however tenuously, in this one?
In streamlining the tale for the stage, Hatcher is careful not to do anything to clarify those unnerving ambiguities. Round House audiences will get no answers from Beard, either. Her governess is both fragile and fearsome, harried and harrowing, unworldly and all-too-knowing. It’s a remarkably balanced performance, a double-edged characterization that demands sympathy as it inspires shock.
Lodge has what may be an even more challenging task: He must loom menacingly in the dark, change character at an instant’s notice, and make potentially silly noises in a threatening fashionHatcher demands that the production employ no spook-house sound effects, just whispers of “footfall” and “creeeaaak” to establish atmosphere. Lodge does all these things superbly, delivering a seductive city bachelor, a querulous old woman, and a preadolescent as convincingly callow as he is creepy.
There’s one moment, in particular, when the two of them working in concert demonstrate what skilled stagecraft is all about: As Miles “plays” an eerie little tune on the nursery piano (Lodge supplies the melody in a disjointed, childish “pum-pum-pum”), Beard delivers a longish speech full of questions and riddles and secrets, building, always building, from whispery beginning to taut, terrifyingly intense end. I tell you, my skin crawled.
Feininger’s production is as economical as Hatcher’s script: Set designer Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden gives the actors a green-velvet slipper chair to sink into and a fragment of deep mahogany stair to ascend, and Ayun Fedorcha’s lighting provides warm cones of light that promise to rescue characters from the insubstantial murk around them.
Beard and Lodge deliver another great moment as she stands unmoving on that stairway and he lurks in the dark beyond it, “striking” the hours as she remains frozen, halfway between fear and resolve. A little light, a little shadow, and two voices on an all-but-empty stage: This Turn of the Screw is theater reduced to its bare essence. No wonder it works so well.CP