Novel Entertainments – Part 2


Jay Quantrill

Jay Quantrill

Writer, Better Lemons


This is a three part series.

To read Part 1 of this series, which discusses the recent production of The Picture of Dorian Gray that was performed at the Pasadena Playhouse, please go to Novel Entertainments – Part 1.

In a short run recently at Red Cap, co-presented with Center Theatre Group, the members of The Gob Squad fashioned Creation (Pictures for Dorian Gray). It’s a fascinating thematic exploration of The Picture of Dorian Gray by the seven-member, Anglo-German “arts collective” based in Berlin.


In the program the Squady quotes Wilde from the preface to the novel: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” Which speaks to the endless reflections of looking into the mirror, which is what The Portrait is for Dorian. So, as one of the members told me, the work is based on Dorian’s reaction to first seeing the portrait of himself, his contemplation of what he sees – and what he makes of it as it ages and he doesn’t.

There is no attempt to bring its story, even its characters, to life. It’s not an adaptation. But it is theatrical, albeit more didactic than dramatic. All seven members of the Gob Squad are self-identified as middle-aged. They employ three local actors over eighty and three in their twenties to assist in making their Dorian-esque exploration of youthful hopes and beauty versus the elderly value of memories and experience – the dreams of youth in the light of the value of aging. Beginning with an Ikibana floral display which they put under a heat lamp to see the effects, they continue discussing the theme and creating examples using the young and the elderly singing and in confessional self-revelation.

It was an intriguing astringent amongst a group of dramatized novels, related to but with no attempt at capture the novel on stage.

***

Another offering in Pasadena this fall (at The Pasadena Playhouse) is Susan Hill’s acclaimed novel, The Woman in Black. It’s one of those English Christmas stories of ghostly gothic horror set in the very early years of the 20th Century. Written in 1983, it was dramatized in 1987 and presented in London’s West End in 1989 where it’s still (almost 30 years on) playing eight times a week. Mostly to tourists, I suspect.

Hill’s book tells the tale of a young lawyer who encounters horrific visions in an isolated windswept mansion set amidst the eerie marshes and howling winds of England’s forbidding North Coast. Brought to the stage by virtue of Stephen Mallatratt’s minimalist two-characters script, it is now touring the US in a re-creation of the London production. And it’s come for Halloween. Good timing. We colonials like our ghosts in their proper time slot – on All Hallows’ Eve or Dia de Los Muertos. Generally, we want our Christmas stories warm and toasty, infused with the exhilaration of a brightly wrapped present, not served on a plate of misty gloom with spine-tingling chills and startling thrills.

In the Playhouse production two excellent American actors (Bradley Armacost and Adam Wesley Brown) successfully capture a handful of the book’s idiosyncratic characters with consummate skill, and the technical production, the design, lighting, and special effects all work to create the novel’s mood. It is all one could ask for.

But as a piece of spooky stage drama? Adapted from a novel? Well, the play-within-a-reading concept seems at odds with itself. For this viewer, it never really achieves the “scary” heights the book provides, and the theatrical promos promise. Indeed, it seems that the brilliance of the theatricality and the clever direction work against it.

In the most recent film of the novel, Daniel Radcliffe played Arthur Kipps the central character, as a young troubled lawyer, whose unease was affecting his career. So, his journey to the haunted house was meant to give him a reboot. Hah! In this stage version Arthur Kipps is a middle-aged man (not the youngster of the novel) needing to share the horrors of his past with friend and family (so the action is in flashback). He’s written it down, and he starts the evening by reading it us. That he’s hired a never-named actor to help him with his presentation provides a wonderfully entertaining, charmingly humorous opening that leads the two of them to “act out” what Kipps has written down. This cleverly tips its hat to the prose origins of the story. Yet the rollicking entertainment of the opening sets an expectation of comedy. And as the tale unfolds, the stage script frequently breaks in on the intended mood of otherworldly eerie-scary. It shatters the illusion, mostly because the humor doesn’t flow from the tale but reminds us that the tale is being enacted on a stage.

The result is a production greatly to admire but ultimately a less than effective transmogrification of a top-notch ghost story into a spooky coup de theatre.

***

Another classic piece of ghostly English prose brought to the stage this fall in Los Angeles is another two-character reduction, this time of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, by noted playwright-screenwriter Jeffry Hatcher (screenwriter of the sublime Mr. Holmes and the lavish The Duchess). There are three characters if you believe you see the lady in Black.

Of the handful of adaptations viewed for this writing, even with its less than effective production values, this was the most satisfying – because the script hones to the intent of the novel and the actors were so convincing. Both actors made the experience of the novel’s legendary ambiguities palpable.

But it’s Hatcher’s script that, even if reduced to a handful of characters, quite successfully captures the tone of the novel, reducing the action to its essentials. Hatcher vividly brings key passages to life in mostly short effective scenes that sweeps the audience into and through the story. Like The Lady In Black, it takes place in a house haunted by past horrors. This time it’s about a young governess determined to care for two young children, but in over her head. Is the naughty boy playing a spooky game intent on driving her mad? Are there two spirits haunting the house, jealous of the governess’ presence? Is the all too knowing creepy housekeeper working to maintain control over the house by driving her bonkers? The questions, as per the novel, remain long after the curtain calls. And the mood lingers in the memory.

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