Philly Fringe 2017: Leila and Pantea Productions’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’

'Jane Eyre' didn't end this way

A 75-minute stage adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, a short novel in which the original author spends roughly 90 percent of the text intimating that something awful is about to happen sometime soon, is no easy feat.

Watch that first step, it's a doozy. (Photo by Candace Cihocki.)

This performance of the Henry James classic at the Drake’s Proscenium Theater, from Leila and Pantea Productions, is a deft and atmospheric marathon of dialogue from two actors (Corinna Burns, who’s simultaneously producing her own Fringe show, and Bob Stineman). Jeffrey Hatcher’s stage adaptation boldly augments the already florid history of the tenants of Bly, living and deceased, cutting through the practical and psychological ambiguities of James’s story.

Shakespeare, Brontë, James, and Hatcher 

The script spells out allusions to Hamlet and Brontë. The crenellated house at Bly is Elsinore. The little girl, Flora, is an infant Ophelia. And where the novel merely touches on the possibility of a mad relative in the attic, our unnamed narrating governess explicitly fancies herself a kind of Jane Eyre. (Except for her creepy motto in Hatcher's version of the story: “There’s nothing like a child in pain.”)

Hatcher’s adaptation isn’t for literary purists, but it’s a worthwhile experience. He borrows a lot of the original language and adds some horrors of his own to conjure the novel’s lonely sense of dread and his own version of its murderous climax.

Chills at the Drake

Burns, in a splendid blue skirt, plays the governess with relentless energy. This comes across whether she’s alone in her mental peregrinations orspeaking to one of a trio of characters adroitly portrayed by Stineman: the master of Bly, the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, and the very weird little boy Miles (plus, perhaps, a specter or two).

Director Candace Cihocki makes excellent use of the spare setting (little more than a staircase, a table and chair, and a small candelabra) to abet Stineman’s character changes. Lighting designer Porsche McGovern helps dial up the chills. As Cihocki notes in her curtain speech and in the playbill, there are no sound cues in the darkness — so don’t even think about getting up during the show or peeking at your phone. Stineman scores the suspense himself, with the occasional scuff and hiss, and provides other sounds like the ghostly calls of birds on the lake, a piano, or the thud of mysterious footsteps.

From the well-sold house, it seems as though the weird human truth of James’s original prologue still stands. The creepier and more disturbing the promised tale, the quicker we’ll line up to hear it.  

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