SEP 11, 2018 12:30 PM
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new adaptation of a Gothic ghost story, premiering this week at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, is a psychological thriller that speaks to contemporary issues of what is real and what is imagined.
The Builders Association, a New York theater company with a long association with Krannert Center, developed “STRANGE WINDOW: The Turn of the Screw,” a new take on Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw.” Krannert Center co-commissioned the work, and the theater company has been in residence on campus for the past two weeks.
Marianne Weems, the company’s artistic director, has been interested in the story – about a young governess who becomes convinced that two ghosts are haunting the house where she is caring for two children – for many years. During its time at Krannert Center, the Builders Association completed the design of the show, integrating the script with the set and with video and other media used in the production. Technology plays a large role in the company’s work.
“It’s really our vocabulary at this point. It’s a language we’ve been developing for over 20 years,” Weems said.
In “STRANGE WINDOW,” the governess’s narration to the camera is like a confessional or the recording of a vlog.
“You get a very personal relationship to her through the camera. It emphasizes that all of this is unfolding through the governess’s point of view,” Weems said.
The adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw” puts the ambiguity about whether the ghosts are real or imagined at the center of the story. Having the governess tell the story in the first person introduces the unreliability of her perception into the narration.
“Ambiguity and unreliability are very much in the air these days, and what is news, what is real and what is up for grabs,” Weems said.
“STRANGE WINDOW” is not straightforward storytelling. Weems and writer James Gibbs have added lighter moments through humorous “lectures” that break up the narrative and serve to deconstruct the story and how audience members might interpret what the characters are experiencing.
One such lecture features a lesson on reading “microexpressions,” or subtle facial expressions. A large close-up of the face of a character is projected on screens at the back of the stage, as her facial expressions change in slow motion. A lecturer points out the movements of the character’s lips and eyes, and the emotions they reveal – fear, arousal and sadness.
The visual impact of the large projected images of faces magnifies the emotional content of the story and its creepiness, Weems said.
Two local children – Joe Solava and Finley Tarr – were cast in the production after auditioning via Skype. They spend much of their time in a restricted area of the stage, like a sandbox, and sometimes they are seen from above using a projection from an overhead camera to create a sense of surveillance over the children.
Weems and Gibbs said the residency at Krannert Center has been important in having all the collaborators together in the theater to determine how the parts of the production will work together onstage.
“When you’re trying to make something new and integrate the different media, you really need to see if it’s going to work full-scale, and have the set there and the video and the lights up and running,” Weems said.
Krannert Center in 2008 sponsored the company’s production of “Continuous City,” about how technology and dislocation affect our lives. The Builders Association shot short videos throughout Champaign-Urbana and worked with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications on the themes of the show. The company also was in residency at Krannert Center in 2003 and 2006 while working on other productions.
“(Krannert Center director) Mike Ross has been incredibly generous and supportive of our company’s life and development,” Weems said. “It’s so amazing to be given the theater and the resources and have at it, and have a company really grow in relation to that support.”
The Builders Association will premiere “STRANGE WINDOW” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Krannert Center before it travels to the University of California, Santa Cruz in October and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December.