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Two actors plus one Henry James ghost story equal a hauntingly good production

Are you up for a Mensa Halloween?

Thingamajig Theatre Company has one for you with its chilling Jeffery Hatcher adaptation of Henry James’ intellectual 19th century ghost story, “The Turn of the Screw.”

Last week, I had a chance to preview the company’s production. If you’ve read the spooky little story, you know, plot-wise, exactly what you’re getting here. The wonder of this tale, however, comes in its telling; Hatcher has pared the cast down to two: the stalwart Governess (Laura Moore), in the midst of the story’s supernatural maelstrom, and a versatile “Man” (Tim Moore), who shifts his way through a myriad of roles. Director Christopher Willard chooses to take this same tactic and cascade it through the show’s design, presentation, and pace, with words and characterization handling the heavy lifting. The resulting effect is an amped-up version of a campfire ghost story: intimate, trusted, and tense, as it beckons you to lean in while the storyteller preps his mostly ghastly revelations under the grim glow of a flashlight.

Mr. Moore is The Man, a well-off bachelor/businessman who is too busy to raise the nephew and niece he has had to take in after his brother’s death. Mrs. Moore is the governess he hires to care for the children at the family estate, which bears the warm and inviting name of Bly.

It does not take the new governess long to realize, however, that there are things about Bly — and the children — that she has not been told. Things such as the little details about the previous employees, who refuse to leave — even though they are deceased. And that the kids are even spookier than the ghosts.

 Even on its most superficial levels, “Turn” is an outstanding scary story. James can make a chill run down your spine with just the mention of a particular name, for example. But there is much more to this piece. James uses the shadowy hallways of Bly to explore the nature of original sin and peeks into some corners of the human psyche so dark and perverse they would make a psychiatrist blush. The end result is a tale as scary as one of the better Halloween movies, but with as much intellectual substance as an Ingmar Bergman film.

James’ dark wickedness is conveyed beautifully by both performers. Mr. Moore brings a frosty presence to The Man that further drops the already chilly temperatures of his lines and flows readily from one role to another, from a wealthy and dashing Londoner to an elderly housekeeper to a 10-year-old boy and back again. Mrs. Moore responds dynamically and uniquely to each new face. She makes us feel her character’s horror and repulsion as the truth of Bly is slowly revealed. Both players clearly made the effort to understand what this story is about, and it shines through in their performances. And, on a purely technical level, their accents are nicely understated and consistent.

Mr. Willard’s direction is outstanding. His choice to cherry-pick some ghost-story tactics results in a subtle and nuanced application of casual and unexpected fear. We’re drawn in by the almost-folksy nature of the two-person storytelling, and when things take a more macabre and deadly turn, the result is a feeling of edge-of-your-seat immediateness and dread. Without special effects, without gore, without a need for boogeyman-ish “boo!” jump-scares, the Thingamajig Theatre Company creates an ever-encroaching sense of dread and foreboding that erupts, almost without warning, into a life-or-death struggle for the souls of both the governess and her charges. The action plays out on an almost bare stage, (just a plush Victorian chair and a set of steps) and no props are used. But Mr. Willard’s blocking and Mr. Moore’s lighting design prevent the show from ever becoming stagnant, or visually dull. At a tidy 80 minutes, the show is well paced and riveting.

It should be noted that “Turn cannot escape a kind of “actor’s studio” look and feel. This play has enormous respect for its material, so some might find it a bit academic. Most patrons, however, know what they are going into when they see Henry James on the marquee and will probably have no problem with that.

So if you are looking for some seasonal entertainment designed to make you think more than to scream, see Turn. And then, if you think about it enough it will make you scream — thanks to James, Mr. and Mrs. Moore and Willard.

Thingamajig Theatre Company presents The Turn of the Screw opening Oct. 14 with a special Champagne Opening and continues 15, 16, 28, 29, 30 and 31 at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts. Tickets are $15 with advance reservation or $20 at the door. For tickets call 731-SHOW or visit www.pagosacenter.org.

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