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Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Governess or the Ghosts?

Sipiwe Moyo, Hannah Heller, Sean Donovan. Photo: James Gibbs.

By Harry Haun

Blood will tell—and did: Henry James—writer/brother of the “Father of American psychology,” William James—crisscrossed the psychological with the supernatural, slyly added a pinch of sex to keep you riveted, and invented the cerebral ghost story.

His farthest reach at this, The Turn of the Screw, unraveled in 12 magazine-serial installments in Collier’s Weekly (Jan 27—Apr 16, 1898) and later that year in one lump sum with another James yarn published together as The Two Magics.

Its heroine is a starchy, sexually repressed governess who tends a rich man’s orphaned niece and nephew on an isolated country estate. James phrases his gothic tale so subtly, so ambiguously, one is never sure if the mystery is just in the governess’ mind or if she really does see ghosts roaming the grounds.

He left that door wide open for interpretation, and all manner of artists have rushed in with theories. Ingrid Bergman did an Emmy-winning Turn for director John Frankenheimer in TV’s Golden Age (1959). Benjamin Britten made an opera out of it in 1954, Luigi Zaninelli a ballet score in 1980, and Will Tuckett a full-length ballet for the Royal Ballet in 1999. William Archiblad adapted The Turn of the Screw for Broadway in 1950, and director Harold Pinter revived that in 1976 with Claire Bloom, Sarah Jessica Parker, and plenty of pauses. Truman Capote added some extra kinks of his own to Archibald’s version and—voila!—created The Innocents, the definitive cinematic Turn of the Screw with a brilliant Deborah Kerr (fresh from Village of the Damned) and young Martin Stephens. A prequel to James’ story—1971’s The Nightcomers—found Marlon Brando filling in the blanks of a backstory about how the estate’s late groundskeeper corrupted the first governess and her charges.

And these innovations keep coming. Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw from The Builders Association and its artistic director Marianne Weems will provide new twists to this already twisty thriller and bring Henry James careening into the world of 21st-century technology from Dec 12 to 15 at BAM’s Harvey Theater.

The Builders Association, which has won two Obies in the two decades of its cutting-edge existence, specializes in mixing technology in with actors. “That’s really our vocabulary,” admits Weems. “We use a lot of technology on stage, but it’s still really about storytelling and theater.”

Photo: James Gibbs

Fortunately, she found James a willing ally in getting to the bottom of his own yarn. He puts up no struggle to the arsenal of panels, screens and video paraphernalia that she has installed on stage to scrutinize faces where the real unvarnished truth resides. “There was this pop-psych movement in the ‘70s that explored these microscopic expressions that flit across your face and betray how you really feel,” says Weems. Your face has many, many expressions that can be captured on high res video, and Henry James wrote specifically in a micro-psychology way, employing very ornate, paragraph-long sentences that are all about people’s faces—what they show and don’t show.”

Her governess arrives at work in 2018 attire and then changes into Victorian duds on stage. “There are two levels to the show—one is present day, one is 19th century.” The fact that she is played by an African-American (Lucia Roderique) is another facet of modern times. “Everywhere you look in New York, there are women of color with white charges. There’s that metaphor in contemporary life. Also, in Henry James, it’s so interesting in terms of class because the governess is above the other servants in the house but below the children, and I think that still resonates in so many ways.”

The governess tells the story in the first-person, introducing the unreliability of her perception into the narration. The ambiguity about whether the ghosts are real or imagined sits at the center of the story. “What is news, what is real, and who gets to tell the truth are all questions in the air these days,” adds Weems.

When asked that eminently puncturable question of what she wants her audiences to take away from her show, Weems responds quickly, “Their coats!” Getting her laugh, she gets serious: “Hopefully, people will have a satisfying sense of hearing a good story—in a different way. It’s all about innovative storytelling, about a surprising way of hearing the story, and I think there’s a lot of pleasure in that.”

Harry Haun has spent the past 40-plus years covering theater and film in New York for such published outlets as Playbill Magazine, New York Daily News, New York Observer, New York Sun, and Film Journal International.

© 2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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