One of the melancholy notes that accompany the beauty of autumn’s onset in our region is the end of the busy summer theater season. In particular, it’s tough to say goodbye to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF)’s outstanding annual selection of classic plays performed in rotation in the spectacular setting of Boscobel in Garrison, and occasionally in Beacon’s Howland Cultural Center.
If you’ve been wishing for just one more such show before the weather gets so almost-wintry that an outdoor performance is out of the question, here’s good news: HVSF is back next week, at both aforementioned venues, with a work admirably suited to the Halloween season: Jeffrey Hatcher’s 1996 stage adaptation of The Turn of the Screw.
Henry James’s 1898 novella about a governess charged with the care of two orphans in a creepy old manse is justly celebrated as the pinnacle of delicious Freudian/Gothic ambiguity. Is it really a ghost story, or a portrait of a woman coming unhinged? Why was the boy Miles expelled from school? What were Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, the two disgraced former employees at the estate, up to — both before and after they died? How much does Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, know? Telling the spooky tale through the point-of-view of the late governess’ journal — a fine exemplar of the “unreliable narrator” — it’s James’s genius to leave his readers with many questions unnervingly unanswered.
One might think that transposing such a story to a visual medium without compromising its all-important narrative subjectivity would be a daunting challenge, but playwrights and screenwriters have found the material irresistible nonetheless. Stage, TV and film versions abound, including a 1950 adaptation by William Archibald retitled The Innocents, revived on Broadway in 1976 with Harold Pinter directing and Claire Bloom starring. With Truman Capote collaborating with Archibald on the Edgar Award-winning screenplay, it became a movie directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr in 1961. Many a subsequent ectoplasmic horror movie — notably the 2001 Nicole Kidman vehicle The Others — claim The Turn of the Screw as a direct progenitor. Benjamin Britten even made it into an opera, and William Tuckett into a ballet.
Contemporary playwright Jeffrey Hatcher put a novel spin on the durable work by reshaping it for a cast of only two: one actress playing the governess (unnamed, as in the original) and another actor or actress morphing into all the other characters. New to his interpretation is the notion that the little girl Flora has gone entirely mute. It all seems like a challenging assignment for both actors (names as yet unannounced), not to mention director Gaye Taylor Upchurch. She’s also on tap to direct HVSF veteran Kurt Rhoads in a one-man show for the Festival next summer — Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad — so this assignment sounds like great prep work for the Off-Broadway regular.
Probably best-known for his stage adaptation of Mitch Albom’s book Tuesdays with Morrie, Hatcher’s work is also familiar to mid-Hudson theatergoers via a 2012 Mohonk Mountain Stage Company reading of Ten Chimneys and last summer’s production of his Three Viewings starring Stephanie Zimbalist at Shadowland in Ellenville. His 2008 stage adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — with four different actors embodying Hyde — copped an Edgar nomination for Best Play, and Hatcher’s screenwriting career has included authoring several episodes of the Peter Falk TV series Columbo.
Performances of HVSF’s production of The Turn of the Screw will begin at 7 p.m. from Wednesday through Saturday, October 29 to November 1, at Boscobel House and Gardens, with wisps of autumnal mist off the Hudson doubtless adding a bit of spine-tingling atmosphere. But if you really want to see this tale enacted in the ideal haunted-house setting, don’t miss the single performance at the Howland Cultural Center, located at 477 Main Street in Beacon, on Tuesday, October 28 beginning at 7:30 p.m.
The former library was designed in the 1870s by Richard Morris Hunt, but the words “Victorian” or “Gothic” utterly fail to capture the architectural quirks of this ornate turreted building, which is faced with red brick on the first story, fishscale shingles on the second and half-timbered on its front gable. Indeed, its style has proven nearly impossible to categorize: Historians have variously described its influences as Picturesque, Polychrome, Stick-style or Norwegian Vernacular. With its soaring, hammerbeam-vaulted ceiling and its walls lined with the original built-in wooden bookshelves, the Howland’s interior space is the perfect setting to stage a story in which mysterious buildings themselves seem to embody brooding, ominous, perhaps malevolent characters.
You may not go mad or see child-molesting ghosts, but you’re sure to wallow in the flavor of this classic tale of psychological horror at the Howland. It’s a rare opportunity, not to be missed. All tickets cost $50, available exclusively online at https://hvshakespeare.org. For more information, call (845) 809-5750.
Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s The Turn of the Screw, $50, Tuesday, October 28, 7:30 p.m., Howland Cultural Center, 477 Main Street, Beacon; Wednesday-Saturday, October 29-November 1, 7 p.m., Boscobel House and Gardens, 1601 Route 9D, Garrison; (845) 809-5750, https://hvshakespeare.org.