Sunday, October 14, 2007

Cygnet’s Turn of the Screw: Good Production, Problematic Adaptation


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photo: Amy Biedel and David Tierney in Cygnet Theatre's production of "The Turn of the Screw." Photo by Chelsea Whitmore; used by permission.

San Diego’s Cygnet Theatre, located on 66th and El Cajon Boulevard not far from the La Mesa border, is a company that’s managed to survive and prosper despite the odds: an out-of-the-way location in a mini-mall, the ever-pressing financial needs of small arts organizations, and an occasional tendency to pick scripts more for the prestige of their authors than their intrinsic merits as theatre. Such is the problem with their Hallowe’en season production of Henry James’ classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw, adapted for the stage by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher.

The plot of The Turn of the Screw is simple enough. In London in 1872, a young woman (Amy Biedel) accepts a job as governess to two children on a remote country estate. The children are 10-year-old Miles, just expelled from boarding school for transgressions that aren’t specified until well into the story, and his mute younger sister Flora. Their previous governess, Miss Jessel, constantly read from a Bible and committed suicide by drowning herself in a lake on the property. Her motive was the perverse relationship — the details, again, carefully left to our imaginations — with the groom, Peter Quint, who was later found by Flora buried under a pile of rocks. The implication is that the children may or may not have murdered him, and he and Miss Jessel may or may not still be hanging around the property as ghosts, giving grief to the new governess as well as the maidservant, Miss Gross.

The program for The Turn of the Screw contains a page of notes by dramaturg Diane Sinor that extensively quotes Hatcher’s explanation of his script. “For over 70 years the major question revolving around The Turn of the Screw has been: are the ghosts real, or are they the products of the governess’s repressed imagination? We had instead the opportunity to refocus the story as an account being told from the governess’s point of view. … If the audience couldn’t see the ghosts, they couldn’t say if they were real or imagined. Having decided that, other elements fell into place. … We were also free to dispense with a realistic set [and props] — just darkness, a chair, and an abstract staircase. Our goal was to create something rich and theatrical out of something spare and austere.”

Dispensing with a realistic set and props wasn’t the problem. The scenic design by Cygnet’s artistic director, Sean Murray, is certainly solid and elaborate enough to establish the Gothic framework of James’s tale, and Eric Lotze’s work is hauntingly atmospheric even though he keeps the stage in such gloomy semi-darkness most of the time one gets the impression his credit in the program should be “darkening director” rather than “lighting director.” Hatcher’s big mistake was thinking he could tell this elaborate story with only two actors, dispensing not only with realistic sets and props but realistic casting as well.

At least Amy Biedel gets to play the same character throughout, whether narrating the governess’s story in flashback (and using much of James’s original text to do so) or living it on stage. Her striking, heartfelt performance creates the most gripping moments in Cygnet’s production and, when she’s alone on stage or dominating the action, her sincerity shines through Hatcher’s artifice. The problem is with her co-star, David Tierney, who’s just fine as the children’s uncle who hires her in the opening scene — but accepting him as the middle-aged Miss Gross bends the suspension of disbelief and asking us to believe in him as a 10-year-old boy snaps it to the breaking point.

It doesn’t help that Tierney wears the same 19th century suit throughout — Veronica Murphy’s costume design is fine for the uncle and lousy for his other two roles — or that his only attempt to differentiate between the three characters is by voice, and his vocal changes are so minimal sometimes we have to wait until Biedel addresses him to figure out which one he’s supposed to be just then. Tierney is a perfectly competent actor and it’s not really his fault that Hatcher has given him the impossible task of switching back and forth between playing a middle-aged woman and playing a 10-year-old boy (albeit a sexually precocious one) without giving him the time to change either his clothes or his mind-set.

One can understand Hatcher’s decision to avoid obligating producers of his play to deal with the personal, logistical and legal problems of employing child actors. (In case you’re wondering who plays Flora, the answer is no one; since she doesn’t speak, Hatcher decided she could exist on stage only by having the others pantomime her.) But without a larger cast, many of the frissons in the story just don’t shock. Miles’s attempted seduction of his governess under the influence of the dead Quint (maybe) seems pretty routine when Miles is played by an adult, and the whole scene comes off less than a depiction of unspeakable perversion and more like a tabloid TV show about a high-school teacher having sex with one of her students.

Cygnet does the best they can with the script they have. Director Janet Hayatshahi tries to solve the credibility problem of having an adult play Miles by keeping him in almost constant motion, having him dash up and down those elaborate, stylized staircases in a pretty good simulacrum of pre-pubescent rambuctiousness. She gets a first-rate performance out of Biedel and handles Tierney about as well as one could expect given the impossible task Hatcher has set him. Biedel is well costumed by Murphy and the wig and hair designs by Peter Herman are also credible.

The Turn of the Screw is really disappointing because the story is intrinsically dramatic — it’s been adapted successfully into an opera by Benjamin Britten and a film (The Innocents) by director Jack Clayton, and there’s another film called The Nightcomers that attempted to be a prequel and cast Marlon Brando as Peter Quint but still sank into box-office oblivion almost as soon as its 1970 release — and because there are times when Amy Biedel’s acting transcends the limits of Hatcher’s adaptation and achieves dramatic power and truth. But those moments aren’t enough to redeem Hatcher’s flawed “take” on James’s great story.

The Turn of the Screw plays through Saturday, November 10 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blv’d., Suite N in the College area. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Regular prices on Thursdays and Sunday evenings are $27. Tickets on Friday and Sunday matinee are $29 and Saturdays $31. Discounts are available for seniors, students and military. Tickets can be purchased by visiting Cygnet's website at or calling the box office at (619) 337-1525.