ST. PETERSBURG — Let’s give credit to the people at Freefall Theatre for bold strokes. Their interpretation of The Turn of the Screw is a testament to talent and risk-taking, but fair warning: If you attend, pay attention. Keep up.
It’s worth the effort, but it’s not always easy, and this production can mess with your mind. The play is an adaptation by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher of Henry James’ 19th century novella and mixes multiple gothic themes — not limited to ghostly possession and haunted home fronts, with maybe a dash or two of insanity.
Well, Halloween will be here soon. If you didn’t know that before, you did the moment you saw the creepy, spartan set designed by Tom Hansen. The lighting reminds viewers of a midnight stroll through a graveyard. Even the costumes are dark.
The cast consists of just two characters: Emilee Dupre as the star-crossed Woman and Freefall producing artistic director Eric Davis as the Man — among other things. He also plays a child, a woman and, for good measure, added what seemed to be animal sounds at precise moments.
No, if you’re curious — he doesn’t change costumes. We just believe he is the character the script calls for at the moment and he adjusts his voice and mannerisms accordingly. That took some serious game.
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Before seeing this, I would have been dubious at the notion that two people could double-handedly carry a 75-minute, one-act play, but they pulled it off. Davis’ role was particularly complicated, requiring him to assume multiple personas and accents. Dupre is magnificent, seamlessly moving her character from naivete to suspicious to haunted to paranoid and finally to victor — sort of.
Dupre plays an English governess who is hired to look after a recently orphaned young brother and a sister who is mute. Things get weird after that because if you’re looking for clean story lines, you won’t find them here. Ambiguity is in every sentence of the script and every expression by the actors.
The governess is shy, innocent and maybe a little resigned to a life spent perpetually caring for children who are not her own. When asked if she fears loneliness, she responds, “I do not fear what I know so well.”
It turns out there are plenty of other things to fear anyway, starting with the mysterious Miles — a misfit child, a scheming, conniving sort, completely unlikable. Davis sold that to perfection.
Miles is home from school and longing to return. But why? Like everything else in this production, it’s an open-ended question.
That’s where the ghosts come in. Or do they? Are there ghosts? If so, who are they? What do they want? And why don’t we ever see them?
That ectoplasmic conundrum has been central to any discussion of both the original novella and its various adaptations. The tension between Miles and the governess grows throughout the play, and that’s when we start to wonder if the place really is haunted. Is it? Or is the governess suffering a mental breakdown?
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Maybe it’s all of the above.
As director Timothy Saunders said in the program notes, “If you see ghosts in this play, then there are ghosts. If you see no ghosts, then there are no ghosts. Both are correct.”
The ghosts, if they are there, are not mischievous pranksters whose main way of delivering fright is a resounding “Boo!” No, these are the embodiment of evil — that is, unless the one who believes they are real has lost touch with reality. Decide for yourself.
That’s the beauty of this play. Fifty people could attend and each could reach a different and defensible conclusion about what they saw.
If you like theater that is complex, spooky and doesn’t tie everything up in a neat bow, The Turn of the Screw might be for you.
IF YOU GO
The Turn of the Screw
$25 and up. Runs through Oct. 27, with shows from Wednesday through Sunday. This show contains adult themes. Discretion advised. Freefall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 498-5205. freefalltheatre.com.