“The Turn of the Screw” Works Its Haunting Wiles in Oldcastle’s Exquisite Production

There is a crispness in the air, the leaves are on the edge of turning and there are cider donuts for sale on the beautiful drive up to Bennington putting one in the perfect frame of mind for one of the best ghost stories ever committed to paper. Oldcastle Theatre Company is offering an exquisite stage production of Henry James’ masterpiece “The Turn of the Screw.”

The play “The Turn of the Screw” is a 1996 adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher of one of Henry James’ most popular novels originally published in 1898. It is an enduring ghost story that has been filmed numerous times, adapted into a television series, an opera by Benjamin Britten, and many imitators as well. It concerns an unnamed young woman, a parson’s daughter, who is taken on as a governess at Bly, a remote English country house. Step by step and day by day in her journal entries she becomes convinced that the seemingly angelic children in her charge are consorting with a pair of specters, the ghosts of previous employees of the house. They were a valet and former governess at the house who were discharged scandalously for having an illicit affair. We in the audience are left to sift through the details as presented to us and determine for ourselves how trustworthy our storyteller is. Do these ghosts exist or is our young nanny responding to other stimuli?

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Oldcastle Theatre Company at Bennington Performing Arts Center presents “The Turn of the Screw” by Jeffrey Hatcher. Pictured: Rebecca Mozo and Oliver Wadsworth. Photo by Kate Whitehall.

We are introduced to the story by a narrator, the irreplaceable Oliver Wadsworth seen frequently throughout the region, who almost leers at us “A ghost story-that tells the tale-of an apparition appearing to a child-always lends the tale a certain ‘turn of the screw.’” We are immediately thrust into a world of ambiguity, threatened violence and innuendo with the very first line of the play and the tension, playfulness and fascination will not let up for the next hour and a half. Mr. Wadsworth, his costar Rebecca Mozo, their director Jillian Armenante and their crack technical staff have crafted an engrossing evening of Victorian horror that will titillate, excite and astonish you. There is not a syllable missed or a wrong step taken in this trim, taut tale.

Mr. Wadsworth gets the showier role, playing at least four characters. After the arch omniscient narrator who opens the show (who is he anyway??), he assumes the role of the children’s imperious and forbidding uncle who interviews the Governess for the job then quickly assumes the role of the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, welcoming her to Bly House who is all chatty and solicitous. He will spend most of the show alternating between Mrs. Grose and the ten-year-old boy Miles (and will deservedly take separate curtain calls for each), sent down to Bly from his school for unnamed offenses “never to return.” Oliver Wadsworth is a naturally comic actor with a wonderfully expressive face but here it is used in an understated manner for sinister effect. His Miles is a wonder of sullen petulance, precocious pronouncements and disturbing, if not frightening, inappropriate gestures. His mere physical proximity to his tutor can startle and his slow pull on a ribbon had me breathless. His physical and vocal work is impeccable and his handling of the set piece as he scampers upstage is incorporated into the show so scene changes become elements of the story. Delightful.

As Governess, Rebecca Mozo is pulled through the knothole taking us along with her into this descent. She is all fresh faced, loving determination as the applicant arriving for her interview and first day at Bly. She believes she is prepared. “We were all children once. What we want is affection. Love. Protection.” We see and feel her confusion, apprehension and terror as she grapples with the ghosts, their meaning and what they awaken in her physically. I could swear I saw her blush on cue. She carries a large amount of the play’s significance which grew this week after Texas and the Supreme Court’s actions against women’s autonomy. What happens to single women in a family way? Miss Jessel, the previous housekeeper, drowned herself or there is the repeated warning “The madhouses are filled with governesses.”

The physical production is superb. The set piece upstage is a marvel, a rolling platform with stairs that lead to a landing that can be rotated independently of the staircase base. The landing has a gnarled, spooky tree on one side and a trio of ornate windows on the other. My only quibble is I would have preferred it 5-10 feet closer downstage to the audience. There’s an awful lot of space between the players and the public. Ken Mooney who did the set design also did the stunning costumes. They are divine in cut, texture and detail. Dark, hiding an almost imperceptible plaid and full of hidden surprises like the ribbon and his pants which easily turn into perfect knickers revealing natty argyles. I have a reservation about a series of blackouts in the middle of the play which up to that point had been thrillingly done without any but besides from that David V. Groupe’s lighting design was excellent, creating dozens of scenes and effects simply with light. I really appreciated Cory Wheat’s spooky pre-show music which included “Night on Bald Mountain” and Saint-Saens but the excellent sound effects of wind and heartbeats were the linchpins of his work tonight.

Jillian Armenante and her company have picked up this 123-year-old story and breathed fresh life into it with clarity, conviction and creativity. The pace, variety and build of the story’s headlong rush to conclusion are thrilling. The play works on your senses as it teases your mind with contemporary relevance, reminding you of repressive, authoritarian lies and the innocent lives wrecked under their rule. “The Turn of the Screw” is a cracking good ghost story that will get under your skin and disturb you.

Through 9/12
Tickets: www.oldcastletheatre.org

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