Haunting theater doesn’t require a lavish set, tricky effects or a grand scale. In the case of Naked Stage’s Turn of the Screw, a strong cast, a clever director and imaginative designers deliver a spellbinding ghost story that creates the kind of unrelenting tension Henry James had in mind when he dreamed it up more than a century ago.
Jeffrey Hatcher’s stage adaptation of James’ 1898 novella, first staged locally at New Theatre in 1998, utilizes just two actors, one to portray the ghost-haunted governess, the other in multiple roles. Naked Stage artistic director Katherine Amadeo plays the determined young parson’s daughter who says yes to a governess job at an isolated, imposing mansion that reminds her of Hamlet’s Elsinore Castle. Matthew William Chizever takes on all the other parts: a seductive bachelor aristocrat who wants nothing to do with his orphaned niece and nephew; a warm-hearted housekeeper acquainted with certain recent tragedies; and 10-year-old Miles, the boy whose strange behavior has just earned him expulsion from boarding school.
The housekeeper, the governess, Miles and his mute younger sister Flora are ostensibly alone at Bly, the story’s gothic mansion. But all too soon, the governess begins spotting a man and a woman, as the children grow increasingly agitated. Is the woman Miss Jessel, the dead former governess? Is the man Peter Quint, Jessel’s sadistic lover, a man also among the departed? Or is the new governess inching toward madness?
For the audience, the answers to those questions barely matter. Turn of the Screw is all about atmosphere, mood and goosebumps. Director and lighting designer Ledford conjures all those things, in collaboration with Antonio Amadeo, whose predominantly gray period set keeps the focus on the expressive faces of the actor-storytellers; Leslye Menshouse, whose dark costumes do the same; and Matt Corey, whose sound design dials up the tension at key moments.
Almost an apparition herself, with her waif-like figure and porcelain beauty, Amadeo makes the 20-year-old governess a potential victim and determined fighter. She doesn’t definitively suggest whether the young woman is right about the ghosts or losing her grip on reality, and that ambiguousness just deepens the play’s mystery.
Chizever is crafty, commanding and chameleonic. Leaving the stage as one person then suddenly reappearing as another, he uses his malleable voice and physicality to populate the stage with distinctive, memorable characters. It is Chizever who supplies the emotional jolts in Turn of the Screw – the “boo” factor that thrill seekers and ghost story lovers crave.