Turning of the Screw 

Henry James' classic opens at Theatre Memphis; Hedwig and the Angry Inch rocks TheatreWorks.

Do you have trouble sleeping after you hear a well-told ghost story? If so, you may want to avoid Theatre Memphis' Next Stage production of the Henry James classic literary phantasm The Turn of the Screw. Creepily lighted and crisply told in a no-nonsense narrative style by local heavy-hitters Michael Gravois and Pamela Poletti, this 19th-century relic still has the ability to raise hairs as well as eyebrows. Given the not-so-subtle theme of child molestation (shocking and graphic in its time), The Turn of the Screw reflects current headlines and seems positively up-to-date.

James penned The Turn of the Screw before Freud was all the rage, and he claimed his ghost story was nothing more than a mere fairy tale. He suggested that readers look at his ghosts -- in life, wicked servants who forced their sinister carnality on a pair of young orphans -- not as mere shades but as imps or other supernatural beings who actively assert their evil presence in the world of the living. It was, more or less, the Poltergeist of its day.

From the 1920s forward, critics have given the story a number of post-Freud, post-feminist, and post-modern readings, before ultimately embracing the tale's defiant ambiguities. Perhaps Screw's young governess is hatter-mad, an adult victim of abuse and completely capable of loving a child to death in even the most literal sense. Maybe she really does see dead people. There is no reason why these possibilities should be mutually exclusive, in the context of fiction anyway. Director Jo Malin and both of her actors have wisely embraced the play's ambiguities, leaving the audience to wonder if they are watching a ghost story or a Polanski-esque study of one woman's upsetting plunge into lunacy.

Poletti plays Screw's sweet, if unhinged, governess while Gravois essays the remaining characters. Gravois' role calls for him to migrate from gender to gender and from age to youth (and back again), and he and Poletti have both been dressed in period and gender-specific costumes. The too-literal choice doesn't hurt the storytelling per se, but it dulls the production's edge. Narrative theater is at once cinematic and literary. It is moving images created by the spoken word. For that reason, a bit of ambiguity in design is preferred. Or, in the immortal words of Olivia Newton-John, "Let me hear your body talk."

Theatre Memphis is currently struggling with issues of identity and relevance. While Screw may be a treat for the literati-at-large, it's more like a show designed for export to high schools. It's not going to bring many first-time ticket-buyers out on a winter's night, especially since the film version is running on AMC. And right now TM needs new blood a whole lot more than it needs a classic, expertly told.

Through January 24th

Taking a Mile

The long and the short of it: Hedwig rocks! Yes, that was an exclamation point. This glitter-rock-inspired gender-twisting cross between cabaret and classic tragedy is a rare bird indeed. Though it's now a well-known commodity, having been translated fantastically into film and produced around the world, it still feels like the next big thing. On top of that, director Jimmy Leduc at TheatreWorks gets everything right. John Maness (who does his best work playing average Joes) may not have been anyone's first choice to play Hedwig, an East German transsexual (sort of) who comes off like a cross between Nico and Tammy Wynette. But he pulls it off with style to spare. Carla McDonald is so convincing as a scraggly-bearded "rock dude" it's positively creepy. The band is tight and should come with a warning label: This ain't no stinking musical theater. This is rock-and-roll.

Regular readers know how long I've complained that one of modern theater's biggest problems is modern theater. The ritual of sitting passively, quietly respecting the actors, is more like attending a lecture than anything the average person associates with joy. One of this critic's critics once suggested Mr. Davis wants to lower the bar and to open it. Yes indeed, yes indeed. For Hedwig, TheatreWorks has been converted into a rock club complete with sluttily dressed waitresses serving up beer, wine, and soft drinks. The capacity crowds are drinking and having a good time while actively becoming a part of the show and the spectacle. It's something to see.

Through February 1st

E-mail: davis@memphisflyer.com

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