L.A. horror and theater buffs know about Jeffrey Combs’ fantastic one-man show Nevermore. They also know about the hilarious musical version of Re-Animator. But it’s time to spread the word: There’s a third you-gotta-see-this horror production on the Los Angeles stage, and it’s Jeffrey Hatcher’s clever, deft, chilling and literate adaptation of Henry James’ 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw.
The Visceral Company specializes in dark genre theater, and as you may have seen from my previous reviews, they also specialize in putting on shows that fly by so fast and enjoyably you wonder how 80 minutes felt like 80 seconds. But even if you’ve seen their previous shows, you haven’t seen anything yet. The Turn of the Screw is even better than their best, and if it doesn’t get enough audiences and notice, then there’s just no justice.
Director Dan Spurgeon works wonders with a cast of two enormously talented actors (the chameleonic Nick Kauffman and the laser-focused Amelia Gotham), a simple set inspired by the macabre art of Edward Gorey (kudos to designer Tyler Aaron Travis), authentic costuming (Erica D. Schwartz), the usual impeccable Visceral Company sound and lighting design (lighting by Dave Sousa) and no props whatsoever. The entire play is carried off without an intermission and in a very small black box theater, and this is perfect for both total story immersion and for the subtle undertones of the narrative. It can be very dark inside the human mind—or the grave…
One doesn’t usually expect fun and laugh-out-loud comedy in classic literature, much less a ghost story that does more than merely hint at some of the ugliest parts of the real world. But this production delivers rich helpings of humor that arise from both the staging and a wry quality in the text itself, making it clear that Henry James, Jeffrey Hatcher and the cast and director are engaging the audience directly with the question: Is it more horrifying if this ghostly tale is literal, or if it’s figurative? And what if it’s both?
Gotham is always and only the governess, who begins as a simple and earnest young woman and then unfolds to reveal all the qualities of human life, both the best and the worst. Like her role, her performance begins in a rather low-key manner and then becomes sharper and stronger as the events of the story unfold. She acts in a perfect synergy with costar Kauffman, each playing off the other in a rising crescendo of strained nerves and layered meaning.
Kauffman is a joy to watch as he transforms from suggestive would-be employer to kindly old housekeeper to sinister figure of mystery to naughty little boy. (He’s even the entire live sound effects department!) He makes it all look effortless, changing within seconds without a single costume change or even a prop to rely on, and we believe every minute of it. Like Gotham, he’s a generous, assured actor who uses his spectacular part to the play’s (and his costar’s) best advantage. It’s called teamwork, folks.
Henry James didn’t want to just tell a simple ghost story, and neither does The Visceral Company. The Turn of the Screw is a narrative about the nature of loneliness, sanity, sexual taboos, guilt and faith. It’s also got a pervasive creepiness that gets under your skin for all kinds of reasons, and the leavening of humor only makes you all the more receptive to its discomfiting qualities. You won’t get a boo-jump scare out of this one. This isn’t a play about how people’s faces can melt off and screaming goblins can fly through the midnight sky. Instead, you’ll get a real scare about parts of reality that aren’t easy to think about, given tantalizing hints of a troubling world at the edges of your vision, and you’ll be left both entertained and provoked to some real thought. Henry James would’ve wanted it that way.
The Visceral Company’s production of The Turn of the Screw plays at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday nights until June 9 at the Underground Theater (1312 N. Wilton Place, Hollywood, CA). Tickets are $15 Thursdays, $20 Fridays and Saturdays. Visit www.thevisceralcompany.com.
Amelia Gotham and Nich Kauffman star in The Visceral Company’s production of The Turn of the Screw, Jeffrey Hatcher’s creepy adaptation of the horrifying Henry James classic, now playing through June 9 at the Underground Theater.