By James Gibbs; Directed by Marianne Weems
Produced by The Builders Association
Part of BAM's Next Wave Festival
Off Broadway, Play
Ran through 12.15.18
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street
by Dan Rubins on 12.19.18
(L-R) Joe Solava, Moe Angelos, Finley Tarr, and Lucia Roderique in
Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw. Photo by Ed Lefkowicz.
BOTTOM LINE: A confused, eccentric take on Henry James' classic psycho-spectral thriller.
If you know the premise of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw already, no need to read this paragraph. If you're not already familiar with the plot, no need to see this play—the narrative jumps in Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw render the story fairly inaccessible to the uninitiated. For clarity’s sake, here’s the lowdown: an unnamed governess takes a position in a cushy castle but with a weird stipulation—under no circumstances may she contact the children’s uncle, their far-away guardian. It doesn’t take long for the skittish nanny to become convinced that her new home is haunted by a pair of demonically decadent former employees set on destroying young Miles and Flora.
Are the ghosts real? Is the governess nuts? Are these apparitions the manifestation of her sexual repression? That’s the crux of the critical debate around James’ novella, trimmed almost to the point of incoherence in this adaptation conceived by director Marianne Weems, writer James Gibbs, and the members of The Builders Association, which played at BAM's Next Wave Festival.
The lack of substantial storytelling gets masked in a flurry of technology, some of which is visually startling but all of which overstays its welcome. A five-panel screen allows for the superimposition of multiple camera shots at once, against pre-recorded backgrounds like an instant green screen. Austin Switser’s video design is at its most impressive when an onstage child appears as if floating on a raft on a projected lake.
As the governess, Lucia Roderique mainly stays stationary behind a music stand and microphone, reading watered-down excerpts of the novella with a very zoomed-in camera capturing her face, usually in some state of astonishment or panic.
The Builders Association’s favorite cinematic trick is to project Roderique’s face in the foreground over a shot of the anxious housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Moe Angelos) standing down the hall. It kind of works, but when the perspectives switch places, Roderique’s now-visible music stand and microphone clunkily show up against the Victorian video backdrop. And when the ghosts start making entrances amidst the sound and fury, it’s all just too laborious to be scary.
Gibbs’ adaptation doesn’t stop at cutting down the novella’s text, though. He’s also endowed these shenanigans with a modern framing device in which a self-involved couple (Sean Donovan and Hannah Heller) give pseudo-scientific keynote lectures, analyzing, with the help of those irrepressible video feeds, the micro-expressions of the central story’s characters and the evolution of childhood mendacity. The real psychological concern of the story, though, is the governess’ manic projection of imagined thoughts and unspoken messages onto her charges, and, besides, these unnecessarily added pauses are real suspense-killers: just at the moment the governess confides her fears about the ghosts’ malicious intentions to Mrs. Grose, one of these interrupters butts in to diagnose Mrs. Grose’s crinkled features as arousal. Such interludes are neither funny nor psychologically helpful, which is a shame since the play begins more promisingly with a bracingly irreverent scene in which a contemporary version of the governess gets a gig via an app called BestNanny.
The performances, too, feel undercooked, as if there to support the visuals instead of the other way around. Joe Solavia and Finley Tarr seem like appealing actors in the roles of the two ill-fated children, but they never get much chance to show off since they only lip-sync their lines while Donovan and Heller imitate kid speech into microphones across the stage. In the novella, the innocent saintliness of the children competes compellingly with the governess’ increasingly paranoid perception of her pupils’ secret shared wickedness; here, the suggestion of demonic possession feels about as subtle as the “Day-O” scene in Beetlejuice. (And, speaking of music, Dan Dobson’s creepy electronic underscoring surges through the play’s duration but never seems to respond dramatically to what’s happening onstage.)
James’ disturbing story still merits revisiting (I enjoyed a recent production of Benjamin Britten’s opera version at Juilliard), but this take on the terrifying tale has one too many screws loose.
(Strange Window: Turn of the Screw played at the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, December 12 -15, 2018. The running time was 75 minutes, no intermission. Performances were Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30. Tickets started at $30 and were available at bam.org or by calling 718-636-4100.)
Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw is by James Gibbs, based on a book by Henry James. Directed by Marianne Weems. Created by Moe Angelos, James Gibbs, Marianne Weems, and the Company. Set Design by Neal Wilkinson. Lighting Design by Jennifer Tipton. Sound Design and Original Music Composition by Dan Dobson. Costume Design by Andrea Mincic. Video Design by Austin Switser. Stage Manager is Max Pendergast.
The cast is Moe Angelos, Sean Donovan, Hannah Heller, Lucia Roderique, Joe Solava, and Finley Tarr.