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THEATER REVIEW

Staying true to a classic ghost story

October 12, 2005|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

For its Halloween chills, Ventura's Rubicon Theatre forgoes more contemporary forms of horror in favor of old-fashioned psychological unease, courtesy of Henry James' classic ghost story, "The Turn of the Screw."

Although not without compromises, Jeffrey Hatcher's 1996 two-actor adaptation remains faithful to the primary plot elements and moody atmosphere of its source, which James characterized as a study in the "tone of suspected and felt trouble."

Taking a cue from the original, the piece relies heavily on the suggestive. The performers, clad in Victorian garb, enact the tale without recourse to props or costume changes. Faline England, as James' unnamed neurotic 20-year-old governess, skillfully provides the emotional centerpiece and introspective narration that shades our perceptions. Playing all the other roles, James O'Neil ensnares her in an ominous web of clearly differentiated characterizations.

Archetypal gothic elements abound as England's perky but naive governess accepts a position caring for two orphaned children at a remote rural manor called Bly. Appearing as the aloof aristocratic uncle who hires her, O'Neil breezily stipulates that he wants nothing to do with the "delightful creatures" -- whatever difficulties she encounters, she must face them alone.

That the girl readily agrees to such curious terms makes her judgment immediately suspect, and England's portrayal sharply confirms the instability of a lonely psyche, reared in isolation and desperate for approval, who quickly develops an unhealthy crush on her absent employer.

Whether the subsequent events at Bly are the product of psychological disturbance or supernatural malevolence has been hotly debated since the story's publication, and Moni Yakim's staging leaves room for either interpretation. Are the too-cute-to-be-true brother and sister in the governess' care targets of a pair of dead servants' debauched evil spirits, or of the governess' paranoia? Certainly no answer is forthcoming from the governess' only confidant, a crabby housekeeper in whom O'Neil amusingly embodies what James termed a "magnificent monument to the blessing of a want of imagination."

Alas, James' master style is MIA -- Hatcher's staccato dialogue retains little of those flowing sentences that navigate the twisty corridors of the mind. It's left to England's performance to effectively take us on that journey. Paring James' slow-building novella, Hatcher uses some inventive condensation, including a series of creepy off-color riddles in which O'Neil reveals the sinister face behind the young boy's angelic mask.

No matter how impressive, the technique imposed by the two-actor concept inevitably steers the audience toward detached contemplation, not the best course if the goal is to scare the bejesus out of us. A further distraction is a tree foliage backdrop of tall green pillows that looks like the garden of the Michelin Man -- surreal but hardly scary. On the plus side, sound effects are well-executed.

This material would best be served with even less stage business -- less moving about, leaving more to the actors' fine vocal characterizations to capture the imagination, like any good ghost story heard round the campfire ought to do.

*

'The Turn of the Screw'

Where: Rubicon Theatre,

1006 E. Main St., Ventura

When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Oct. 30

Price: $25 to $48

Contact: (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

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