Actors Jenny Ledel and Cameron Cobb have experience with ghosts. In last summer's Hamlet at Shakespeare Dallas, they played Ophelia and the moody Dane in an especially dark take on the Bard's dance with death. Now in Kitchen Dog Theater's production of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, they play all the characters, including some restless spirits bent on murder.
In a tightly acted, stripped-down stage adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher, director Christina Vela keeps the pace brisk for the 85-minute play. Ledel plays a governess newly hired by the mysterious lord (Cobb) of a gloomy estate called Bly. His instructions are specific: When she gets to Bly, where she is to care for his young niece and nephew, she is never to contact her employer again. (So much easier to abide by in the pre-email era. Quill on parchment took time.)
Cobb, changing only his physical silhouette and his voice, turns around to become Mrs. Grose, the gossipy housekeeper at Bly. He also plays precocious 10-year-old ward Miles, who has been expelled from boarding school for unspecified naughtiness. Miles is creepily sexual with the pretty new nanny. Is he responsible for the sudden deaths of the previous nanny and her lover, the valet? Is there some psycho-sexual connection between those ghosts and the children?
With the full-faced handsomeness of a young Orson Welles, Cobb is a master of vocal dexterity, defining his variety of characters by their accents (coached, by the way, by British-born Dallas actress Emily Gray). He's a one-man Downton Abbey.
The production 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 dramatically minimal, just one white chair and a three-level, free-standing staircase to nowhere. Sound effects are provided by Cobb, who whispers "creeeeeak" and "footfall" as the governess tiptoes up the steps.
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If the storyline of Screw - ghosts haunting an English mansion to try to stop more murders - seems familiar it's because James' novella has inspired lots of adaptations on stage and screen and in modern lit. Joyce Carol Oates' retold the novel from the ghosts' point of view in her story "The Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly."
You'll retell the story after seeing it, too, with an emphasis on the scary-good performances by Cobb and Ledel.
The Turn of the Screw continues through April 28 at Kitchen Dog Theater at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary. Call 214-953-1055.