‘The Turn’: Horror in the house

The Reformers stage a "house play" fit for the season – a ghostly homage to Henry James and "The Turn of the Screw"

Heaven knows I’ve been to my fair share of “house shows,” the popular term for rock/folk concerts put on in homes, but I’m pretty sure The Reformers’ The Turn was my first “house play.” I was unsure what to expect as I approached the Hawthorne-area house, checked in and waited in the frigid garage area that doubles as a lobby, half cordoned off by a translucent plastic curtain, behind which kids were playing. A red die clattered under the curtain and landed by my feet. I rolled it back. Baskets, ceramic jack-o-lanterns, and other stored miscellanea filled utility shelves on the far wall. This was definitely a house. Instinctively, even though I knew better, I braced myself for beer stains and amp feedback.

We were ushered into a large, low-ceilinged living room with available seats disbursed among other furniture layouts (the “sets”) draped in white sheets. Seats faced in all directions; some swiveled. Load-bearing beams obscured certain sight lines. I chose a high-backed chair against the wall in a corner, but apparently I chose wrong. A business-dressed couple, Amanda Boekelheide and Sean Doran, greeted me briskly and “suggested” another seat: a red swiveler in the center of the room. I balked at what looked like a “hot seat” if ever there was. “Oh, please, do take this wonderful seat!” they insisted. They seemed friendly, but gave me the impression that I was in for it.

Hello, dolly, and all that creepy kids' stuff. Photo: Jody Ake

Hello, dolly, and all that creepy kids’ stuff. Photo: Jody Ake

Fortunately, this pair was in character rather than genuinely overbearing, posing as real estate agents showing an antique house. Once I obliged them by taking the hot seat, they proceeded with their unsettling presentation of the house’s (ahem) interesting history! The home was built on Native American lands, after which the salmon runs died out! It has a huge walk-in freezer and dry storage “to die for,” and it’s completely snowed-in and secluded for three months of every year! (Chilling, to say the least.)

Once the realtors left the room, the metaphorical fourth wall(s) went back up, locking the audience in the center of a sinister tableau. Clusters of furniture arranged showroom-style around the edges of the room formed mini-sets, each with their own lighting, and as actors came and went, we were cued where to look by lights in a given area either snapping on or fading up. Sometimes we had to turn (aha) or swivel our seats to catch the action, leading to a lot of awkward knee wars with strangers.

We watched housekeeper Ms. Grose (Paige Johnson Jones) interview Jackie (Tai Sammons) to be the property’s caretaker. We saw Jackie agree to take the job, settle in with her trusty typewriter, and struggle to communicate with the house’s resident orphan, Danielle (Agatha Olson), who insisted on communicating with and through a life-sized doll she referred to as her “sister Flora.”

All of this took place in the light. But in the peripheral shadows and between-scenes, two other specters lurked: a sallow, slender man and woman we would learn were ghosts of the property’s late caretaker Kate Jessel (Amanda Boekelheide) and notorious groundskeeper Peter Quint (Sean Doran). (Yes, these were the same two who at the top of the show depicted real estate agents, perhaps suggesting that the ghosts had briefly assumed a more humanoid form to trick people into inhabiting their house … or simply demonstrating that this production’s small cast was versatile.)

These characters’ dance of evasion and threat gradually escalated into a multidirectional tug-of-war, with the strong-willed Jackie trying to “save” Danielle, deep denier Ms. Grose trying to keep calm and ignore the hauntings, the ghost woman and the talking doll trying to manipulate the little girl, and the little girl trying to escape the male ghost but unsure whose waiting arms to run into: the sorrowful but soothing female ghost, or the increasingly stern Jackie. The ghost of Peter Quint had no clear motivation, though it was implied that in life he’d been a molester.

The Reformers’ update of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw maintains many of the original story’s key features — some characters’ names, suspense, and an ending left open to interpretation — but there are also many edits. The original story’s two children have been condensed into one child and a doll, the setting’s been limited to the indoors, and costuming, decór and names have been modernized … though not all the way. Jackie’s ivory bell-bottom pantsuit and Ms. Gross’s patchwork-print house dress, along with the added first names “Jackie” and “Danielle,” clue us in that the story has been moved from the 1890s to the 1970s.

The ’70s are an oddly appropriate choice of era, a memorable golden age for low-gore suspense thrillers. Around that time, TV was airing The Night Gallery, the sinister, stylish follow-up to The Twilight Zone. Then movie theaters debuted adaptations of Steven King’s Carrie and The Shining. Full-color filmic depictions of paranormal figures were still somewhat novel, as was the corruption of “innocent” icons like dolls and little girls (and in the case of Carrie, a dolled-up young woman). Cut to the present, where ’70s and early ’80s horror films maintain a loyal fanbase, in part because their practical special effects and “retro” styling give modern fans a comfortable distance from their threat. We know Jack Nicholson isn’t going to be able to murder us; his axe isn’t even in 3D or hi-def! It’s like he’s not even trying. Hence, a scene that would be terrifying becomes merely interesting.

The same effect is at play in The Turn, where costuming alone provides enough distance to buffer the audience against the shocks, while now-clichés like a talking doll, a mistrustful child, an oddball housemistress, and ghosts who are mostly spooky for spooks’ sake reinforce that this isn’t real. What it is, is a crisper logistical undertaking than any “haunted house” or “house show” could ever match, and an interesting aesthetic and emotional space that, thanks to immersive staging and committed performances, really will envelop you.

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The Turn continues through October 25. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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A. L. Adams is associate editor of Artslandia Magazine and a frequent contributor to The Portland Mercury.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

 

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