As part of their Out Of The Woods Readings, the American Players Theatre presented a one day pop up reading of The Turn Of The Screw. This is an adaptation of the Henry James novella by Jeffrey Hatcher and was directed by James DeVita. There are five characters in the play but only four speaking roles…and two actors, Kelsey Brennan and James Ridge. I’ll describe how this all works out as I go along.
This was originally streamed on October 29th, 2020, just in time for Halloween. But obviously I have been tardy in writing this and apologize to you and APT if I have left things out.
First off, with a running time of an hour and thirty five minutes there isn’t time for Mr. Hatcher to cover every detail in the James novella. But he has done a masterful job of condensing the story and advancing the sense of dread and foreboding that the story requires. And he maintains a bit of the original conceit that we are getting the story from the diary or journal of a governess describing her experience at Bly, a manor house in rural England.
Most of us are probably familiar with the story since it is a staple of American Literature courses and high school English classes. At one time I was a Henry James aficionado but it’s been a while since I’d read this…so my imperfect memory was challenged to follow the plot as it unfolded. But Mr. Hatcher’s text is so precise in the language that you can feel the eerie run down your spine, not only from the story but from the writing of it.
Now this was a reading and it was in Zoom and we have two actors. Ms. Brennan who plays the governess and Mr. Ridge who plays everyone else. So this makes it easier to present on screen as we aren’t swapping out speaking roles as the story progressed, just watching the two principals side by side. And the APT has used their summer experiences to master the technology. The camera positions were exactly right and the lighting worked marvelously to mirror the events in the story.
Now, I don’t know if I could have picked two better actors for these roles. One of the major limitations of Zoom readings is we have to live with actors…well…reading. They don’t have the advantage of using all of the body to project their role…they don’t have dramatic lighting or fabulous costumes…nor the actual physical interaction with the other players to tell their stories. But Mr. Ridge and Ms. Brennan absolutely nailed the voice changes and inflections and particularly the facial movements necessary to tell the story. Key skills when looking directly into a camera rather than trying to reach the patrons in the 21st row. But they were marvelous…the sneering lip…the surprised eyebrows…the broad smiles…the suspicious tilt of the head.
And Mr. Ridge in particular was challenged to change character as he changed character…simply sitting back from the camera for a moment and then changing the head tilt or eyebrows or posture to let us know who he was now portraying…and of course the just ever so slight but clearly differentiated vocal inflections and tones as he moved from the Master to Miles (the male child) to Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper.
Flora, the little girl at the estate, was described as not talking to anyone although she was capable of doing so…which was one less speaking role for this adaptation.
And it’s a ghost story of the most classic type. Maybe not scary in the 21st Century but still with the necessary eerie and creepy to keep us in focus and on edge.
So I was mesmerized throughout…at times taken aback by the ability of the play and the players to move me from one event and emotion to another…with essentially just their voice and face. There were a few times that I thought, I’d love to see this on stage, and then recanted and realized it would destroy much of the magic that I was seeing here.
And it rekindled my interest Henry James…I have a number of his works on my book shelf and will dust them off in the new year.
One last thought about theater before I conclude. I don’t know when we’ll all be able to safely sit together in a theater and share the experience of live actors on stage. Not soon enough but not just yet. But even when we can do that again…I am thinking that there will still be a place for intimate small productions like this on Zoom or another platform…that we can experience individually…and I hope we very very soon can do both.