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Ghost story 'The Turn of the Screw' messes with the head but fails to move the heart



The Turn of the Screw
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
University of Oklahoma Opera Theatre
Donald W. Reynolds Performing Arts Center
540 Parrington Oval, Norman

An opera based on the 19th-century novella of the same name by Henry James, "The Turn of the Screw" tells the story of an idealistic governess who arrives at an English estate to care for siblings Flora and Miles.

What starts out as a seemingly ideal job soon takes a turn for the worse when the spirits of two former employees at the estate, Mrs. Jessel and valet Peter Quint, begin stalking the grounds in pursuit of the children.

After uncovering the truth of their predatory nature, the governess vows to protect the kids from further harm.

Things grow convoluted when the governess fears that the children are perhaps evil themselves, and it is suggested that the whole supernatural affair might only be going on in her mind. The ambiguity and symbolism of James' original work has inspired much debate and numerous adaptations.

The operatic version debuted in 1954; composer Benjamin Britten's score is jarring and unpleasant right from the start, which is effective at putting the audience ill at ease and creating an impending sense of dread.

Because there's never a moment early on in "Screw" where everything is normal musically, despite things seeming alight narratively, there's never a feeling that anyone involved is anything but doomed. This also creates more than a few disjointed, unintentionally funny moments where the still-carefree governess' biggest concern is whether the kids will like her or not, while the music sounds like it should accompany of scene of psychological torment.

As the story progresses and the ghosts make their appearances, themusic starts to work strongly in favor of the narrative, rather than against it. However, this is not an opera you will walk away from humming.

The actors acquit themselves well enough. Rodney Westbrook and Jessica Tucker make a lasting and unpleasant impression as the paranormal pederasts, while and Leslie Gile and Susan Stanley do a great job portraying the children, through innocence, trauma and menace.

All in all, OU has mounted a faithful production that seems to exemplify the qualities for which "Screw" is praised, and for which I think all but opera aficionados and the occasional psychology student would find difficult to like. In line with other thematic tensions present, the sparse black sets and props create a stark contrast to the period costumes, while a rear-projection screen plays host to a number of Gothic images.

"Screw" is atmospheric and thought-provoking. While the production definitely gets in your head and under your skin, it fails to move the heart or please the ear. "?Eric Webb


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