Monday, October 5, 2015

The Turn of the Screw—Portland Shakespeare Project—SW Portland

A Classic Ghost Story

This story by Henry James is adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by JoAnn Johnson.  It is playing at the Artists Repertory Theatre space at SW Alder St. and 16th Ave. through October 18th.  For more information, go to their site at www.portlandshakes.org or call 503-241-1278.

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  On one level a great ghost story but, on another tier, a psychological thriller, or maybe a religious dilemma…you decide.  The actual James’ story is actually weaker than many of the adaptations that have been made.

There was a play on Broadway, on which the excellent movie version, The Innocents, with Deborah Kerr (co-authored by Truman Capote) was based, and the television adaptation by Dan Curtis, with Lynn Redgrave.  Then there was the confused prequel (with Brando as Quint) called The Nightcomers, another play adaptation called The Turning, an Ashland production of this show a number of years ago with Anthony Held and an old German poem (the name escapes me but, I believe, the title was the German words for Halloween Night).

The story, on the surface, is about a young Governess (Dana Millican), about to acquire her first position at a place called Bly Manor, in which she will be in charge of two children, the precocious Miles (Chris Harder), ten years old and his shy, uncommunicative younger sister, Flora.  Their uncle (again, Harder) wants nothing to do with their upbringing and education and is leaving that totally up to her and the Housekeeper, Mrs. Groves (once again, Harder).

She learns early on that Flora has not spoken since the death of the first governess, Miss Jessel.  And Miles has been expelled from school for some undefined bad behavior.  She believes he may have been somewhat influenced by the uncle’s valet, Peter Quint, now also deceased.  The rest of the tale concerns the Governess’s efforts to investigate the secrets that she believes lies hidden within this old house and it’s questionable past.  To tell more would spoil the discoveries.

Why this is considered such a multi-layered, psychological story is because Miss Jessel is often pictured by the lake (some psychologies see this image as a sexual representation of a woman) and Quint on the tower (a phallic representation of a man).  Also, it can be said, that the governess is sexually repressed (a virgin, probably) and, besides the house, the garden (of Eden?) is the other prominent location.  Biblical, perhaps, as well as psychological.  Is this a battle between Good and Evil for souls on the innocents?  So you have at least three levels to consider and the tale works equally well on any of them.

This is told in a story-telling style in which the major characters are played by only two individuals, as well as the narration and sound effects.  It is done on an essentially “black box” theatre setting with very little set pieces, minimal costuming, and subtle lighting to suggest mood changes and shifts in locations.  In other words, it is up to the actor’s & director’s talents, the author’s words and the audience’s imagination to complete the bulk of the presentation.

Johnson has done an amazing job of picturing this complicated story for us and yet not passing judgment on which of the levels she herself has decided on (although, I’m sure, she and the actors have made that determination for themselves).  Johnson can certainly be called an “actor’s director” for she, herself, is a fine actor and, therefore, knows from whence they came.  Quite a riveting evening in her capable hands.

And this is a tour-de-force for actors.  Millican, always good in whatever productions I’ve reviewed her in, is captivating, commanding and a little scary as the conflicted matriarch of this beleaguered brood.  She always rides that thin line between what may be real and what may not be.  This may be Millican’s finest hour!  Harder manages to pull off three roles, the authoritarian uncle, the proper Mrs. Groves and an enigmatic, ten-year-old boy.  Quite a feat and he does it brilliantly!  Everyone one of the characters are done in the same costume with no make-up changes and only a subtle alteration of the voice, walks/stances and facial expressions and yet you are never confused as to which character he’s enacting.  I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of these fine actors gracing our stages.

I recommend this show.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.