Ryan Stotts has long had a fascination with “The Turn of the Screw,” the classic horror novella by Henry James, and he’s not alone.
Almost from the time the novella came out in 1898, serialized in 12-installments in Collier’s Weekly, “The Turn of the Screw” has been a subject of fascination.
The Appleseed Community Theatre production of “The Turn of the Screw” has been canceled.
“Very quickly, people thought two things,” said Stotts, who directs an Appleseed Community Theatre production of his own adaptation of the story opening Oct. 26. “The first was that this was the best example of its kind, of Victorian ghost stories. It was immediately considered the height of its genre.”
On the other hand, people also quickly started reading deeper psychological meanings into the story of a governess who comes to care for two orphaned children. The new governess soon comes to believe that the children, put under the care of an uncaring uncle, are haunted by the specters of the previous governess and her lover, another employee of the uncle.
But are the ghosts real or the invention of a disturbed mind?
Stotts has faced a lot of questions himself in the past five years as he’s worked on draft after draft of his adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw.” First, he had to answer for himself whether the ghosts are real or the governess has gone mad. Sharing his answer before the premiere of the play, of course, would be like giving away the ending — and the play does give the novella’s ending a new twist.
“We answer it a little differently,” Stotts said.
Another big question was whether a small cast in an unconventional theater space — basically a theater in the round set up in the La Crescent Community Building — could pull off a theater production while handling the lighting and sound cues themselves. Stotts answered that one in the affirmative last year with his “Sherlock Holmes” adaptation, but this production puts more pressure on the players, with twice as many sound cues to deal with as well as running all the hand-held lights and 16 remote-controlled lights.
“It’s a heavy lift,” he said.
And Stotts had a big question most likely nobody who has previously adapted the story has had to ask: “Could I have the ghosts and the children played by the same people? Do I have the actors who can do it?” he said.
Make that two affirmatives. In the Stotts version, the children are played by the same actors who play the ghosts, wearing white masks when they are playing the children.
“I can tell you that there is something very creepy about white masks and high-pitched voices from actors who are adults,” Stotts said. “That’s one of those things where you make a decision and you hope it works.”
Stotts is confident it will work, mainly because he has veteran actors Jonathan Lamb and Elizabeth Arihood playing the dual roles, with both bringing their skills as dancers to give their portrayal of the children a youthful physicality.
In Stotts’ adaptation, the children are twins and share mannerisms, almost like the eerie girls from “The Shining.”
“And that’s unnerving,” he said. “You forget for a moment that they’re wonderfully nice people and completely sane.”
The cast also includes Susan Oddsen as the governess, Rhonda Staats as the housekeeper and world-class opera singer Carla Thelen Hanson as “The Angel,” a character that will sing three compositions by Purcell in the course of the play.
“We were really fortunate to get her to come down and sing because she does have the voice of an angel,” Stotts said. “We could have used recordings I suppose, but it wouldn’t be the same as hearing a really wonderful soprano.”
Another musical element in the play will be the pounding of war drums to punctuate the scenes. “All of the light transitions in this show are harsh. You get a series of war drums and the lights are up,” Stotts said. “There’s nothing gentle about the aesthetics of this show.”
The housekeeper character, Mrs. Grose, in Stotts’ version is blind, and so is the actress who plays her, which lends a new twist to the story.
“There is this sort of surreal aspect to it,” he said. “What’s great about Mrs. Grose being blind is she really can’t tell if this woman is telling the truth or not. The issue in this show is what do you see and what can you not see?”
If that seems just a bit “meta,” that’s by design.
“One of the main elements I wanted to include was meta-theatricality. I want you always to be aware you’re watching a play,” Stotts said. “I don’t want the audience to feel distanced. We really have to draw them in so we can scare them a few times, so you start to remove the elements that would start to distance them in a very small room.”
Having this labor of love, five years in the making, finally come to the stage feels like a big turning point for Stotts. “What’s interesting is seeing it come to life,” he said. “It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been a lot of fun.”