Wake Up, Marconi! resists the temptation to go for the cheap scare in its adaptation of a classic American ghost story.
By Ellen Wernecke
Like many horror movies today, Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw” begins with a group of people sitting around telling ghost stories. The story being told is a work of one-upmanship on the part of the teller, who inherited the story from his sister’s governess. Wake Up, Marconi! Theater Company’s production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s “The Turn of the Screw” keeps this moment with the play’s audience as the initial narrator’s, and delivers a chilling and thoroughly Victorian take on the classic.
A young governess (Melissa Pinsly) takes a job caring for two children whose uncle and guardian (Steve Cook) insists only that he not be bothered with their problems. The children (one played by Cook, one in pantomime) are perfect angels and the setting a bucolic wonder, but strange apparitions begin to appear looming over her charges at play. Gradually, the governess, confiding in the housekeeper (Cook as well), begins to believe the ghosts of the former governess and a handyman are controlling the children, who in turn are lying to their governess about it, and she becomes obsessed with protecting them.
Using the organizing metaphor of the six days of creation in the Bible, Hatcher plays up the theme of repression and the Governess’s sexual inexperience, using wordplay and adding conversations which flesh out what James might have implied. (On offering the job to her, the master says, “Have I seduced you?” a question repeated throughout the show.) In a certain sense, this limits Pinsly and Cook in what they can do onstage since the book’s more deliberate character development cannot be reproduced here. Still, this makes more of a mark on the directing (a few lines leaned on too heavily) than in the actors’ performances. Pinsly’s young governess could easily have been a one-note character, but there’s something more than desperation in her portrait of the innocent lost. Cook juggles his roles using his body language and voice to separate young boy from creepy old housekeeper, but he’s most frightening when standing in the shadows as the ghost--a surprisingly effective device which the play never calls attention to directly. Despite a few horror-movie moments, “The Turn of the Screw” sticks to its creepy origins and captivates to the final moments.
Through November 17 at the Bank Street Theatre
151 Bank St.
Tickets $10-18, Theatermania.com
For more information, visit WakeUpMarconi.com.
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