Review: The Filigree Theatre’s The Turn of the Screw is a cozy bit of spookiness

When people talk about the changes that have occurred in Austin over the past few decades, often they lament about the way so much of the city’s art scene has become corporatized and sublimated to the all-encroaching tech industry. What ever happened, they bemoan, to the days of shows staged in a living room or a parking lot?

The Filigree Theatre’s latest production—playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw—is a piece of old Austin-style intimate artistry. Playing through February 9th at the relatively tiny Romy Suskin Photography Studio, The Turn of the Screw is a one-act, two-actor show that takes place mere feet in front of the small audience, cramped together in a row of chairs with the sounds of traffic from South 1st Street providing a constant backing track.

What is most remarkable is just how much this atmosphere serves the production, rather than detracting from it. Director Elizabeth V. Newman is clearly aware how unconventional the performance venue is, and she uses this to heighten the psychologically fraught, close-to-the-vest ghost story.

Somewhat famously, James’ The Turn of the Screw remains maddeningly ambiguous as to whether the ghosts haunting a young governess charged with the care of two children are real or merely a symbol of her own fraying sanity. Though a fully realized visualization of such a story would, of necessity, have to choose to physically represent the “ghosts” or not, Hatcher’s text cleverly relies on just two actors, leaving several characters—and not just the ghosts—left to the audience’s imagination.

Newman takes this concept and makes it even more ambiguous by staging the entire production in near-darkness, lit only by candles and lanterns on the stage, with a bit of help representing the few daylight scenes from a single lighting rig (an ingenious lighting scheme from designer Alison Lewis). The shadowy actions of both the governess and the eerie children become literalized by the darkened stage, yet the emotional nuances of the two talented performers remain strong thanks to the audience’s closeness to the action.

As the young governess, Paulina Fricke-Fox smoothly rides the razor-thin line between clarity of action and elliptical vagueness, crafting a character arc shot through with fear, rage, wickedness, pride, and desire, all while leaving the ultimate interpretation of the play’s events up to the viewer. Similarly, as he transitions, chameleon-like, between a variety of roles—from the children’s uncle, to the young boy Miles, and even the estate’s housekeeper—James Lindsley creates a consistently eerie atmosphere that stops just short of providing the audience with easy answers as to what is real and what is imagined. Both performers excel at handling Hatcher’s adaptation of James’ often stilted dialogue, creating semi-surrealist bits of comedy that heighten the uncanny nature of the tale rather than just directly delivering lines that might otherwise feeling stale or outdated.

With an evocative, spooky atmosphere and two dynamite performances, The Filigree Theatre’s The Turn of the Screw is a wonderful mid-winter ghost story that serves to remind audiences that theatrical magic can happen even in the strangest of locales.

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