Michael Cusimano and Megan Carmitchel in "The Turn of the Screw." Photo courtesy of Chalk Circle Collective
“The Turn of the Screw” is only Chalk Circle Collective’s first production, but right off the bat the brand-new company in town deserves an award: for the most inventive use of atmospheric sound of the year.
Chalk Circle co-founders (with Frankie Errington, who directs this production) Megan Carmitchel and Michael Cusimano have created a soundscape of original music and effects that for an hour and a half turn Diversionary Theatre’s upstairs BlackBox space into a haunted house. For Henry James’ brooding ghost story, adapted into a two-character play by Jeffrey Hatcher, haunted is a prerequisite.
I’d liked to have been a fly on the wall when Carmitchel and Cusimano, who co-star in this production, brainstormed, experimented and worked out their aural devices. Both are musicians as well as actors, so it’s not surprising that they share an intuitive gift for employing sound to shape a story. What is special within the telling of “The Turn of the Screw” is how heavy breathing into a microphone, tapping that same mic against the chest to simulate heartbeats, strafing the strings of a violin or plucking those of an electric guitar laying flat can produce such haunts and oscillations in mood.
Awash in these sound effects, the dramatizing of James’ tale about a governess in a spooky house with spooks on the loose unfolds like the creaking open of an above-ground tomb. As said governess (Carmitchel) discovers that her charges Flora and Miles are no mere precocious Essex kids in need of caretaking, the tension rises at the same time. The novella leaves room for some doubt about the governess’ sanity and whether what she’s experiencing might be in her head, but Hatcher’s roiling adaptation does not. There is every indication that the country estate Bly is under ghostly siege.
In Chalk Circle’s auspicious debut, Cusimano portrays the children’s uncle at the outset of the play, a stern mystery wrapped in an enigma. From then on he shifts between fluttering Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper at Bly, and the mysterious young Miles, who harbors secrets and something inhuman inside him.
“The Turn of the Screw” has been a project long dreamed of by Carmitchel and Cusimano. Their commitment to its eerie depths, fractured psychology and Gothic horror is clear. Each relishes in not only their performance but in the trappings of that horror.
The chilling disquiet of the first half of this production gives way to near-hysteria in the second half, with the actors wrestling on the floor and the confines of Diversionary’s Blackbox resounding with exhortations and even screams. Excessive? Perhaps. But this is a ghost story and it is Halloween season.
Carmitchel’s governess is nervous energy personified, becoming practically possessed herself by the time she realizes that she must be the one to figuratively if not literally exorcise the spirits of Bly. She must try to save the children.
Cusimano’s controlling and inscrutable lord of the estate is missed after his brief appearance. Nephew Miles, however, is just as inscrutable and Cusimano does well by that character’s more than practically possessed demeanor in the showdown with the governess.
There are built-in limitations to performing in a blackbox, but with only two characters onstage Hatcher’s “The Turn of the Screw” is designed to function in small confines. If claustrophobia sets in, all the better for an unsettling tale like this one.
“The Turn of the Screw” runs through Oct. 29 in Diversionary Theatre’s Blackbox space in University Heights.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.