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BWW Review: Simple Machine's THE TURN OF THE SCREW Conjures Up Ghosts

The Turn of the Screw

Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from the story by Henry James; Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara; Production Stage Manager, Elizabeth Ramirez; Costume Design, Emily Woods Hogue; Lighting Design, Ian King; Dialect Consultant, Liz Hayes

CAST: Stephen Libby, Anna Waldron

Performances through November 23 by Simple Machine Theatre at Gibson House Museum, 137 Beacon Street, Boston, MA (Nov 8, 9, 10, 15, 21, 22) and Taylor House Bed & Breakfast, 50 Burroughs Street, Boston, MA (Nov 14, 16, 17, 23); Box Office 857-574-0550 or Tickets are $25; performance runs approximately 80 minutes with no intermission; there will be no late seating.

Simple Machine Theatre is climbing aboard the Jeffrey Hatcher bandwagon rumbling through Greater Boston this month with his adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw as their second venture following their launch last spring with rogerandtom. In an unusual move, the play is being staged in two historic houses, the Gibson House Museum in Back Bay and the Taylor House Bed & Breakfast in Jamaica Plain, both built in and representative of the 19th century. The Turn of the Screw takes place in 1872 and these settings provide an extra dose of authenticity above and beyond what one might expect from the scenic design on a traditional stage.

Simple Machine's mission is "to make theatre that is engaging, accessible, and affordable," and their productions focus on the basic elements of storytelling. With The Turn of the Screw, they score on all counts (except that patrons with mobility issues are advised to attend a performance at Taylor House as stairs come into play at Gibson House). My previous experience with James' work was as an uninterested high school student; watching it live makes it far more engaging and, at $25 per ticket, very affordable. Stephen Libby, playing numerous roles, and Anna Waldron as the governess provide the best of both worlds as they seamlessly go back and forth between showing and telling the Gothic ghost story.

At the Gibson House, the audience is first seated in the old kitchen on the basement level of the multi-story building. Members of the museum staff are on hand to answer questions before the lights are dimmed to start the show and set the eerie tone. Enter Libby, dressed by Costume Designer Emily Woods Hogue in Victorian garb, his face lit from below by the amber glow of a (faux) candle, to explain the situation of a bachelor uncle interviewing a young woman as prospective governess for his orphaned niece and nephew recently placed in his care. Moments later, Waldron, in a black, floor-length 19th-century dress, glides into the room and he begins the colloquy. She learns little from him beyond the names of the children and the housekeeper at Bly, his English country estate, but excitedly accepts the position and agrees to his unusual condition that she must never trouble him about the children.

The rest of the play occurs on the main floor in the entryway, where a wide staircase ascends on one side opposite a pair of doors on the wall, and the dining room can be seen at the rear of the house. The distant uncle appears no more, freeing Libby to become the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, ten-year old Miles, and the master's former valet Peter Quint. He does a masterful job of assuming each identity, virtually shrinking into himself and lowering his head to become the boy, while ever-so-slightly feminizing his posture to suggest Mrs. Grose. While Waldron portrays only one character, the governess is transformed by her experiences from a bright-eyed, innocent girl, to a protective, take-charge woman, and the actress plays each nuance and emotion convincingly.

Upon her arrival at Bly, the governess befriends Flora, the shy little girl who doesn't speak, and her brother who has been sent home from boarding school under suspicious circumstances. However, ere long she becomes aware of the presence of spirits and resolves to protect the children from them, until she begins to suspect that Flora and Miles are connected to strange occurrences in the household. Despite her cooperative and friendly demeanor, Mrs. Grose is not forthcoming, causing the governess to forge an uncomfortable alliance with Miles. Driven by fear and her own imagination, and unable to turn to the master for assistance, the governess devises a desperate plan to exorcise the demons and save the children.

Director M. Bevin O'Gara and Lighting Designer Ian King create a creepy atmosphere, masterfully ratcheting up the tension and suspense as the story progresses and using the confined space very well. Blocking involves frequent entrances and exits through the doors on the wall or up and down the staircase, and strategic dim lighting from the side or below casts eerie shadows. Separated from the audience by only a few feet, Libby and Waldron display incredible focus and concentration - they seem more aware of the story's ghosts than the corporeal figures whose eyes are intent upon them - and it feels as if we're watching them through a one-way mirror. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, their spellbinding performances will scare the bejeezers out of you.

Photo credit: Kyler Taustin Photography (Anna Waldron, Stephen Libby)

Three more chances to see this critically-acclaimed production

WED, NOV 20 @ 7:30PM
Please note correct time.^
SAT, NOV 23 @ 4:30PM
SUN, NOV 24 @ 7:30PM

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