That ol' black-box magic

This week, "Stage" is running a section up the flagpole titled "You're a Fool if You Missed..." to discover whether readers will salute insults, coercion, and contempt from the theater critic. Rather than exhorting folks to see a great play during the run, we decided to try it backward: browbeating them because they missed a great play.

Because it really is true that you're a fool if you didn't see The Turn of the Screw at Theatre Quorum, an irreproachable example of theatrical minimalism gorgeously lit within the subconscious arena of a black-box space. Near-fiendish acting brought Jeffrey Hatcher's tart psychosexual distillation of Henry James' attention-wandering novella to its logical Freudian conclusion. Percolating beneath every scene was the forbidden sexual tension between brothers and sisters, nurturers and children, and bosses and employees, which whizzed by you like racehorses on crank.

Many grad students have probably rolled their eyes when an overreaching professor suggested that all those relationships dwell in James' tale. But Hatcher's script is so ingeniously devised with the sparest of theatrical parts -- one woman playing the governess, one man playing five other characters, including a narrator -- that you're forced to look at these arrangements as they overlap like web strands, held tight between the polarities of just two actors.

Certainly undeniable from James' text is the shocking, mostly hinted-at goal of the vengeful ghost lovers -- tempting a little boy and his younger sister with carnal knowledge of each other, so the dead voluptuaries may enter their bodies and enjoy physical contact again. A horrified governess slowly comes to realize this, dragging the baggage of her enormous doubt all the way to the (attempted) rescue. What if you were to believe in an emergency that almost no one else would, but felt you had to act anyway?

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With a play like Three Viewings (recently staged by Circle Theatre), Jeffrey Hatcher brought us a reflection of a dead man through the three different, and successively disruptive, mirrors of people who knew him. With Hatcher's Scotland Road (recently brought to you by Stage West), a woman who may be a ghost made of flesh from the Titanic wreckage tells us more about the obsessions of the doctor and the historian who attend her than about herself. And with The Turn of the Screw, Theatre Quorum and the playwright brought us one lonely virgin (Laurel Whitsett) being tugged in a multitude of erotic directions by both her 10-year-old charge Miles; the ghost of a savage, omnivorous pedophile; and her domineering but flirtatious employer (all played by Kent Williams). Hatcher may be the contemporary theater's most prolific hammer, shattering character and actor identities into shards and rearranging them depending on who's relating to whom in any given scene.

In The Turn of the Screw, director Carl Savering cleared the smashing ground in the Mesquite Arts Center's warm black-box space, illuminating the pieces one by one with the ingenious help of lighting designer Sarah Clausen. At the center of the bare stage was a chair (Savering hates flats); stretching out diagonally from it to the four corners of the room were geometric shapes of light. Actors Whitsett and Williams raced, spun, crept, crawled, collapsed, and just sat silently in darkness and in gel-covered spotlight, encouraged by Savering to emphasize not just the restrained eroticism, but also a wicked Hammer Films humor as well.

At the two performances I attended, first with a small group and then with a capacity overflow crowd, ticketbuyers swung smoothly on the vines between laughter and spooked excitement. The leads were sublime: Whitsett not only has the ability to play hard and soft characters, but shifted textures degree by degree within one performance; she handled a plummet into horny paranoia from within the pure white heart of a maiden without flailing. Kent Williams turned multiple personality disorder into some strange new art form, a hybrid of hypnotism and flower arranging. He never changed costumes when he changed characters, thus the vase stayed the same; nor did he take visible pains to change his body. Clasped hands for a worrywart British domestic became a 10-year old's sticky paws impatiently picking at his waistcoat. The raised eyebrows of a lascivious employer turned into the more furrowed brow of that same insolent boy, although the child retained just a smidgen of sexual menace. The virtuoso Williams' last performance was more than 18 months ago in Undermain's world premiere of A Por Quinley Christmas. Currently artistic director of Plano Children's Theatre, he deprives Dallas audiences by staying away for such long stretches from adult stages.

So have I convinced those of you who stayed home and watched The Practice on TV that the hole in your life created by missing Theatre Quorum's The Turn of the Screw can never be filled again? True, there isn't a stampede of shows out there where every single pin and wheel churns so fluidly in unison, but when you do trip over one, you stumble into a sensory experience you can feel on the skin of your arms. That's why theater truly is more precious than film: Unless you can convince Whitsett, Williams, Savering, et al. to freelance in your living room, the sound of their droll, eerie harmonies on this project has died out for good. And unlike James' persistent undead lovers, they ain't coming back.

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