The gothic chiller written at the very end of the 19th century may just be the ultimate ghost story. A governess joins an eerie household to care for two young and precocious students. In the sinister manor also lives a housekeeper, and perhaps some shadowy others. The governess sees them, but she seems to be the only one who does. Are they the ghosts of previous servants? Creations of the children’s overactive imaginations? Or mischievous attackers of the governess’ sanity?
This weekend, that ghost story—Henry James’ curious masterwork The Turn of the Screw—receives a fresh interpretation in the multi-genre video and live performance piece Strange Window, directed by innovative conceptualist Marianne Weems. Founder and director of the award-winning Builders Association in New York, Weems brings her company to UCSC for four performances this weekend before the production moves to New York for its East Coast premiere at the New Wave Festival.
A visually ingenious interpretation of James’ classic, Strange Window casts its spell through state-of-the-art media design and stagecraft. The blend of sound/video media and live action captures the flavor of James’ tale of illusion, psycho-reality, and the semipermeable membrane between the two.
“I think that seeing this old-fashioned ghost story told with our 21st century tools will be a visceral and thought-provoking encounter,” says Weems. “As artistic director, I work with different media and media designers. I generally introduce the concept and then bring together the strands. Everything flows from that, the connectivity. We create the form around the idea. Some of our pieces, such as this one, are text-based. The dialogue in Strange Window is taken directly from James’ text.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Weems says. “This text is about ambiguity. Are the ghosts real, for example. And the staging heightens the ambiguous.”
In the upcoming production, the governess, the children, and all characters are seen in magnification—“a live film,” Weems calls it, “projected into a mediatized space.” The special magic of this work comes in its duality; viewers see the live performance as well as its simultaneous projection magnified on the screen behind the players. “United on the screen yet fragmented on the stage” is how Weems describes it. The play is interwoven with assorted contemporary film clips, as well as a soundtrack of abstract music and voices.
“Media and living action intertwine to heighten the same ambiguity James explores in his novella,” she explains. “The intimacy comes from the magnified faces.” Also, she promises, “the ghosts appear in an ambiguous way.” We won’t reveal what that is.
“It will all be really intense here, in this space,” Weems says, gesturing toward the raked seats in the Performing Arts Experimental theater. “I love this space. And the production itself is visually rich, the work has high impact. Like filmmaking and storytelling together.”
“The whole thing is coherent. In this case, the whole is more than the sum of its parts,” she says with a grin.
The play is also “opened out” at a few points, Weems notes. “There is a Q&A session with a child psychologist talking about truth and lies, especially among children.” Henry James’ belief in something called micro-psychology, “where you can read a person’s inner life according to micro-expressions on their faces and body language, is also referenced in this production.”
Weems describes her production group as “working in that grey area between theater and cinema.” She admits her interests have advanced beyond traditional theater. “Blending video, sound, performance, and text—it’s hard to return to traditional stage production.”
Marianne Weems has confidence in the radical interests of audiences here in Santa Cruz, which she believes are in line with the vision of new Arts Dean Susan Solt. The director of Strange Window aims to extend the boundaries of theater, anticipating that audiences will find this piece “stimulating, new, and surprising.”
‘Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw.’
Oct. 13-14, The Experimental Theater, UCSC. 70 mins, $10-$25. ucsctickets.com.