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REVIEW: The Turn of the Screw

October 26, 2017 5:00 am0 commentsViews: 12
Kelsey Torstveit and Joe Pietopaolo  Photo: Michael & Suz Karchmer

Kelsey Torstveit and Joe Pietopaolo
Photo: Michael & Suz Karchmer

by Jeannette de Beauvoir

It is perfect almost-Halloween fare: an isolated estate, an absent and handsome bachelor employer, children at risk, malevolent ghosts, a young woman driven to the brink… and indeed that was what Henry James intended, although he wrote The Turn of the Screw in 1897 for Christmas. Apparently, at the time a part of any successful Christmas celebration was the telling of a few good ghost stories, and James’ contribution, published as a novella, has stood the test of time. It was adapted for the stage in 1995 by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher.

The story involves a young woman who’s been persuaded to take a position as governess for her employer’s niece Flora and nephew Miles in an isolated country home, following the death of the previous governess. She begins her first day at Bly, the country home, where she meets Flora and the housekeeper, Mrs. Groese. The next day she learns that Miles has been expelled from his boarding school. Soon thereafter, the governess glimpses an alarming man, identified by Mrs. Groese as the former valet, Peter Quint, who is quite dead. Convinced that the ghost seeks Miles, the governess supervises the children closely. One day, when she is at the lake with Flora, she sees a woman dressed in black and senses that the woman is Miss Jessel, her dead predecessor. And it gets even darker from there…

It sounds like a story with a reasonably large cast, and so it is; but in this stage adaptation all the characters are played by two people, The Man (Joe Pietropaolo) and The Woman (Kelsey Torstveit). Torstveit is, of course, the governess, and takes the audience cheerfully in hand when she appears at Bly eager to care for the two children and fulfill her promises to their uncle. And as her world on the estate turns darker and darker as the days go by, Torstveit brings the audience along with her as she loses her innocence—and perhaps even her mind.

The real tour de force in this production is Pietropaolo, who is somehow absolutely convincing as the uncle, as Mrs. Groese the housekeeper, as Miles… what first appeared to be an affectation on the playwright’s part quickly becomes clearly a facet of a very lean production that’s all the more frightening because of its sparseness. Pietropaolo is perfect as a middle-aged woman; one can readily imagine an apron and plentiful bosom when he later comforts Torstveit’s character. This isn’t a man dressing as a woman; this is a man slipping completely into the persona of a woman, and it’s brilliant.

It takes the governess a while to need that comforting bosom; she’s resolutely jolly through at least the first third of the play. Flora is both mute and invisible, yet Torstveit speaks to her so naturally that one can almost summon her image. When she learns that Miles has been expelled, Torstveit declares, “A boy who’s never bad is no boy for me!” to which the housekeeper mournfully responds, “There’s spirit… and there’s spirit.”

And indeed the play revolves around spirits and their effects on the living. How did Quint and Jessel die? Why did Flora fall silent after her governess’ suicide? What exactly is Miles up to? And are the children… really there?

What director Christopher Ostrom does to perfection here is contain multitudes on a stage within a stage; the characters are given a dollhouse, a chair, a chandelier, and the branches of a tree; the rest is up to them. And Torstveit’s unraveling is spookily wonderful in a play in which “the corridors are full of governesses.”

Happy Halloween!

The Turn of the Screw is performed Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. through October 29 at WHAT, 2357 Rte. 6, Wellfleet. For tickets ($20 – $35/$12 students) and information call 508.349.9428 or visit what.org.