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The Turn of the Screw at The Underground Theater

by Brian Sonia-Wallace~

Horror, by nature, is a theatrical genre because to be effective it must acknowledge its audience and enter a relationship with them. This relationship is frequently missing from LA theatre, and its presence is what makes The Visceral Company’s production of The Turn of the Screw a local masterpiece—one that simultaneously worships, subverts, and transcends its own genre.

At its heart the play is a Victorian horror, ruffles included. Its Dickensian plot focuses on a governess hired by an absentee lord (who absolutely must not be contacted, at any cost) to replace the former governess (whose disappearance may not be spoken of) to care for his orphaned niece and nephew on his desolate estate (which is, of course, haunted). Or so we are led to believe at first, but as the play proceeds we learn that the depths of the human mind may be more dangerous, and more unknowable, than any ghosts.

What makes this production so wonderful is the way it wins the audience over right from the start with its wry playfulness, in a scene whose recurring motif is “Have I seduced you?” The play embraces the campiness of its genre, playing with the fine line between horror and comedy in such a balls-to-the-wall way that we have no choice but to love it. In the hands of a less competent director, the Carnival-esque farce elements might have turned the show into a painful hipster exercize in self-awareness. But Dan Spurgeon turns his screws tight, and the play is just that: play in its purest form, like an older sibling whispering a horror story and cackling when the wide-eyed listener winces.

In a beautiful and significant way, this production goes back to the origins of theatre by respecting and challenging the audience’s ability to suspend its disbelief. Tyler Aarib Travis’ simple set is hand-drawn and unchanging, with Erica D. Schwartz’s stark costumes completing the story-book feel, and the play uses no props or even sound effects that the actors do not themselves create. As if that weren’t enough, the frighteningly competent Nich Kauffman plays every single role except for the governess, from a sexually potent lord to a cockney housekeeper to a petulant ten-year-old. He is utterly mutable, keeping distinct mannerisms and voice for each character without slipping into the trap of character acting. Each character seems sincere and human, but most also manage to be seductive and terrifying in turns.

Mr. Kauffman’s chameleon turn is a hard act to follow, but Amelia Gotham’s governess easily holds her and own to take her rightful place as the star of the show. Ms. Gotham is an actress to watch out for, with huge eyes that flash between innocence and madness in a split second and an incredible vocal range. The script is not shy of narration from either character in the interest of building suspense, and in these moments Ms. Gotham charts her own characters’ journey from naïve determination to terror to blazing mad righteousness. While Mr. Kauffman’s changes are necessarily sharp and distinct, Ms. Gotham keeps her cards close to her chest, and with each new evolution of her character we feel the cold shudder of the titular ‘turn of the screw’.

It is tempting to say that The Turn of the Screw could easily be a radio play, but it would be a shame to miss out on Mr. Spurgeon’s blocking. It is concise, minimalist, and utterly imaginative, with nods to Commedia as well as typical horror tropes and a healthy amount of space for the audience to simply imagine what is going on. This is sort of play where even the sound of the characters’ footfalls are part of the score, carefully orchestrated to build suspense. Darkness is used very effectively throughout, though in the performance I saw the lights didn’t quite keep up during some scenes and left actors to cross in the dark as lights slowly came up. Hopefully this issue will resolve itself further down the line.

To say much more about this production would give the game away, so I’ll end my review here with a quick-but-painful note on ticket prices. Too often in LA, after seeing a perfectly competent show, I have to say to myself ‘Yes, that was perfectly good, but was it worth 20-30 bucks? I could have gone and seen the Avengers instead. Twice!’ Aside from being pleased to see cheap preview and Thursday tickets for this show, I am happy to report that it didn’t even appear on my Avengers-o-meter. The Turn of the Screw creates a total theatrical experience, a challenge for the imagination and a thrill for the body, and I was never once tempted to compare it to film. It’s not only ‘good’ in the sense of well-acted and -staged, it’s also ‘right’, in the sense of really owning its form and genre. Hats off to The Visceral Company.

The Turn of the Screw is performed Thursday through Saturday at 8pm through June 9, 2012.

The Underground Theater is at 1312 N. Wilton Pl., Hollywood, CA.

Ticket prices $15 for Thursday performances and $20 on Friday and Saturday.