The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’s enigmatic ghost story, has spawned many adaptations and interpretations in the 120 years since its publication. The Builders Association, known for innovative and technologically advanced theater, has ginned up a production that relies heavily on artistically imagined projections to tell a time-shifting version of the classic novella.
Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw, written by James Gibbs and directed by Marianne Weems, begins with a promising bang of laughs. A hypermodern jet-setting couple hires a “supernanny” from a nanny app to take “full responsibility” – not just to care – for the two children they’ve inherited on the parents’ deaths.
The uncle is a lecture-circuit child psychologist who draws facile and dubious conclusions about children’s evolving perceptions of truth and falsehood. The aunt gives nonsensical TED Talk-type demos of facial micro-expressions, using close-up projections of subjects’ faces. These scenes pop up during, and comment unsubtly upon, the main action.
In this present-day setting, hired nanny Abigail (the excellent Lucia Roderique) worries about the unforgiving terms of her employment. These epitomize the downsides of today’s “gig economy” and suggest parallels with some of the terrible working conditions of bygone times.
But upon taking the job, Abigail dons a long skirt and begins narrating first-person passages from the novella, as the setting settles back into the 1890s. That smooth, unexpected early transition is the play’s most effective moment.
Subsequently the production settles, too – into a technological hyperactivity that’s paradoxically complacent. Austin Switser’s brilliant black-and-white projections are artistic and arresting. But rather than complementing the action, they take it over. With all the blinking lights, all the bodily/virtual multiplicities, all of Dan Dobson’s irritatingly assertive music, most of the action is weirdly static. Put simply, there’s a whole lot of telling and not much showing.
Roderique has a compelling presence and recites James’s text with sensitivity. We feel for Abigail, for a while. But, however enhanced by sound and video, her lines are just that – recitations. The ghostly visitations and other scenic elements provide moments sometimes effectively eerie or otherwise suggestive. But they are just that – moments.
Rather than accumulating storytelling momentum, the production’s traditional and modern elements weigh each other down. We’re left mostly with lugubrious sound and fury – an ultimately cold experience. It’s a classic case of the high-concept squeezing out the meat that makes theater real.