In Henry James’ gothic tale “The Turn of the Screw,” actor Christopher Scheer is playing multiple characters, often with the rapid-fire changes required of him in many of his comic roles for Montpelier’s Lost Nation Theater over the years.
“Our personalities are so much more fluid than we remember from day to day,” Scheer said between rehearsals.
“We contain so much more than we realize,” he said. “We think of ourselves as one particular mask we’ve chosen to put on, but we all contain multitudes. So the tools of changing characters are prosaic: You change your voice, you change your posture, but in doing that you discover these other sides of yourself.
“So, in this process, I’m playing all of these characters in a suspenseful and mysterious gothic horror,” Scheer said, “so it’s not like some of the comedies I’ve done before.”
Scheer will be joined by Laura Erle in Lost Nation Theater’s production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s two-actor adaptation of the Henry James novella April 25-May 12 at Montpelier’s City Hall Arts Center. Kim Allen Bent, the theater’s founding artistic director, is directing.
“Working on a production is always a collaborative process, and I have to be open to what the actors bring,” Bent said. “We’re all working together to tell the story.”
James’ horror novella was originally published in serial format in Collier’s Weekly in 1898. It has been adapted for radio drama, film, stage and television, including a 1950 Broadway play, Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera and the 1961 film “The Innocents.”
In anyone other than James’ hands, except perhaps Alfred Hitchcock, the story might seem a bit trite. In 1872 England, a very young and innocent woman is hired by a wealthy bachelor to care for his niece and nephew on his country estate, while he remains in London. The one stipulation is that she never bother him.
When the governess arrives at Bly, his country estate, she discovers an air of mystery. The child Flora doesn’t speak, the 10-year-old Miles has just been expelled from boarding school for “unspeakable” acts, and the housekeeper Mrs. Grose is friendly but tight-lipped. When confronted by a mysterious man and woman — are they apparitions? — the governess is scared, then determined. But is the mysterious couple after the children — or the governess?
“You have to fill in the blanks as audience, because we don’t have any physical proofs of spirits or ghosts,” Erle, who plays the governess, said. “I think it does that nicely.”
Erle, still as governess, must also play a narrative role.
“Laura takes on Henry James’ voice throughout the story,” Bent said. “That seems, as we’re working on it, to be critically important to make things clear to the audience. She speaks so much, there has to be modulation. You have to find out all the colors she peaks with, otherwise you stop hearing her.”
“She is very innocent at the beginning, a parson’s daughter who has been in a church for her whole life,” Erle said. “She decides to become a governess because she has read ‘Jane Eyre,’ and I think fantasizes about what being a governess is and what that life could lead to.
“We see her growth so much in confidence and her loss of innocence as she comes to terms with what exists beneath the surface,” Erle said.
And there is a decided sexual element, couched in Victorian reticence.
“Because Chris plays multiple characters, he plays the single uncle, who she’s very attracted to, and he also plays the little boy,” Erle said. “She sees the uncle in him, so there’s definitely this sort of undertone.”
Much of the tension is created by what is left to the suspicions of the governess — and the audience.
“The silence and darkness that’s left on stage, combined with the narrative tools we’re engaging in and the characters we’re embodying around us, there’s space for the audience’s imagination,” Scheer said.
Hatcher ordered the story with a consciousness of how the dynamics of theater work.
“The overall arc of the piece definitely comes to a climactic moment at the end,” Bent said. “What you need to find along the way is how to accentuate the smaller climaxes and build to that largest climax.”
Also, Hatcher consciously set it up, as the book does, so there are questions that don’t have definite answers.
“So at the end, he wants people to go away and talk about what they saw and try to figure out what they saw together, to compare notes,” Bent said. “We want people to experience that. But, personally, I hope that people have an opportunity to realize that they’ve looked into part of themselves that they knew was there, but hadn’t really looked at before.”