The Turn of the Screw (Review)

A perfect treat for the Halloween season

Critic's Pick

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC) is promoting its current production of Hamlet as “the greatest ghost story ever told.” But if you gravitate toward such tales, you need to return during the run of the great tragedy for CSC’s staging of The Turn of the Screw, offered on Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings (7:30 p.m.) in addition to Saturday afternoons (2 p.m.) through Nov. 9. (See Tom McElfresh's review of Hamlet here.)

Adapted from Henry James’ 1898 novella, this script by noted playwright Jeffrey Hatcher focuses on psychological drama and emotional trauma — it feels like a feverish nightmare.

You might know this classic story, which has been made into films and an opera. A naive governess is hired to care for two children, Miles and Flora, in a remote country house in Essex. She becomes convinced that the brother and sister are somehow possessed by the ghosts of two former servants, a pair of now-dead lovers, and her actions based on this conviction have dire results. There’s been a lot of debate in literary circles as to whether the governess is mentally disturbed and whether the ghosts are real or simply figments of her imagination — or perhaps some fiendish plot by Miles, the boy, who has been banished from a boarding school for undefined behavior described as “corrupt.”

Hatcher’s script winds these concepts a bit tighter by using only two actors to tell the story, directed at CSC by Rebecca Bowman Bromels. A woman (veteran CSC performer Kelly Mengelkoch) portrays the governess; a man (Josh Stamoolis, a versatile regular at CSC) handles all the other roles, including the children and Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper.

James’ narrative pays much attention to the quality of light in various scenes, and CSC’s production is dimly lit — an intentional kind of half-gloom — with great results. Using the Hamlet set (only barely visible are pale, twisted tree branches), most of the action happens near the front edge of the stage. Mengelkoch’s mood-swinging governess is almost constantly in the action; when the characters played by Stamoolis exit the scene, he simply turns upstage and becomes invisible in the darkness — a dreamlike effect.

Mengelkoch and Stamoolis capture both the dry wit and the mounting hysteria of the narrative as distilled by Hatcher, and she is especially effective in showing the young woman’s deteriorating mental state and growing obsession. Hatcher’s version of the story manages to incorporate many of novelist James’ psychological insights about characters seducing one another — metaphorically and perhaps literally.

This Turn of the Screw weaves a kind of subtle entrapment that ensnares audiences, too — 70 minutes of creepy seduction, a perfect treat for the Halloween season.

THE TURN OF THE SCREW continues at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company through Nov. 9. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.