By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A creepy mansion crawling with unhappy ghosts is the setting of Henry James' spooky 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, now playing at Kitchen Dog Theater in a spiffy, stripped-down stage adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher.
Jenny Ledel lets hysteria build slowly in her portrayal of a newly hired governess who becomes unhinged by mysterious forces as she tries to protect two children's lives. Playing everyone else in the gloomy Essex estate called Bly — youngsters Miles and Flora, housekeeper Mrs. Grose, the emotionally detached uncle and the specters, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel — is Cameron Cobb. With the dark, brooding looks of a young Orson Welles, Cobb is a marvel of vocal dexterity, shifting swiftly among different English accents (coached by British-born Dallas actress Emily Gray) and the physical traits of male and female characters of varying ages. It's like watching a one-man version of Downton Abbey.
The production, directed by KDT company member Christina Vela, has been squeezed into the smaller black-box theater at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary, with action happening close to the audience. Scenery by David Walsh is compact, stark and minimal, just one white chair and a three-level, free-standing white staircase to nowhere. Sound effects are provided by Cobb, who performs them by whispering "creeeeeak" and "footfall" as the governess tiptoes up those stairs. (Under-use of air conditioning in the theater also adds the unpleasantly claustrophobic effect of watching the play in a tight, hot crawlspace. Good thing the show's over in 85 minutes.)
Keeping the sensory elements and three-dimensional trappings of Screw suggested in the abstract matches James' cryptic storytelling style. The novella's a gem of unspoken horrors and unresolved sexual secrets. Is the governess seeing ghosts or is she having a serious mental breakdown? Were the weird little kids — tiny Flora doesn't speak; 10-year-old Miles was expelled from boarding school for "corrupt behavior" — molested by their uncle's late valet, Quint? Did they witness the murder of their previous governess, Miss Jessel? Was Miles the killer? And why does the master instruct the new nanny never to contact him again once she's installed at Bly?
With hints of Jane Eyre in its depiction of childcare among apathetic landed gentry, The Turn of the Screw is also a cautionary tale about what happens when people can't talk freely about sex. Someone sees something nasty in the woodshed, as the old lady said in Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons' comic 1932 spoof of stories like Eyre and Screw), and pretty soon the place is overrun with homicidal adolescents and angry sex-ghosts.
The Turn of the Screw has been done to death in opera, onstage in numerous versions (this one by Hatcher is popular now for its economy of cast members) and in dozens of movies (The Others, starring Nicole Kidman, is one of the most recent). Valet Peter Quint is believed to have inspired the character Quentin Collins in the 1960s TV soap Dark Shadows (revived this spring as a new Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp). Joyce Carol Oates' retold the novel from the ghosts' POV in her story "The Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly."
As ghost stories go, nothing about Kitchen Dog's will make the gooseflesh prickle your arms or frighten you into sleeping with the lights on later. Some more moments of genuine oogity-boogity might've been nice in this Turn of the Screw. The scary-good performances by Cobb and Ledel, however, are enough to recommend it.
There's a ghost hovering over the new show at Nouveau 47 Theatre, too. His name is Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who committed suicide in 2010 after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, tweeted and live-streamed over the Internet a dorm-room sexual encounter between Clementi and another man. Clementi, humiliated, jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Ravi recently was found guilty of invasion of privacy and other charges connected to the incidents that led to Clementi's death. "Dharun, 10 years; Tyler, an eternity," says the main character in Nouveau's show, The A-Gays: Stillwater, Oklahoma, written and performed by Dallas theater newcomer John Michael.
The one-man play begins with a tribute to Clementi. Then Michael's high-energy 80-minute monologue tells his own coming-out saga in a series of vignettes that rocket between high comedy and physical slapstick into moments of quiet solemnity. Michael even steps out of "character" (he's playing himself, plus various friends and boyfriends) to ask for the audience's indulgence. "Root for him," he repeats several times. He's referring to his younger self, the one in the play having trouble being openly gay on the conservative campus of Oklahoma State University. (His drama professor there, Matt Tomlanovich, directed this production.)
Most of A-Gays is pretty typical coming-out material. Michael details his first awkward dates with cute campus crushes and admits to cruising bars on Cedar Springs, looking not for a "sugar daddy" to support him but for a "Splenda daddy" to cover his drinks. At 21, a "gayby" as he puts it, Michael find he's short on gay role models to go to for advice. "All I have is [advice columnist] Dan Savage," he says. He also mentions Dallas theater director and actor René Moreno, whose production of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County in Oklahoma City last year inspired his artistic ambitions. (Moreno's current production of that play at Addison's WaterTower Theatre stars Pam Dougherty, who was in that version Michael saw in Oklahoma. Small world.)
He's on the little Nouveau 47 stage alone, but Michael seems to be everywhere at once during his show. He runs laps through the theater, leaps like a lemur between the poles at the four corners of the stage and works up such a sweat he changes T-shirts twice.
Michael's immense likability as a solo performer helps sustain interest in A-Gays during the flimsier sections of his script. Just out of college (he graduated from University of Texas at Dallas last year), Michael is a fresh but fledgling playwright still in a narcissistic public-confession mode, admitting in the play that he's working on "finding his voice." More Fierstein-like quips — Michael's best is "Modesty is for ugly people" — and fewer graphic sexual descriptions will broaden audience appeal. That overlong simulated masturbation scene? We get where it's going after the first five strokes. Less is more with that stuff, though his reference to using a wet-wipe to clean up some "santorum" after his first anal session is good for a long, hearty laugh.