There are as many theories on the origins of theater as there are associate drama professors. Some point to 4,000-year-old Egyptian "Passion" plays, others to the Great Dionysia of ancient Athens. But a far more likely scenario involves a prehistoric campfire at night, a gifted Paleolithic shaman and the age-old and universal human delight in having the bejesus scared out of us. And that’s precisely the elemental magic that’s at work in two spooky and intimate psychological-horror tales now being staged in unconventional, out-of-the-theater places on the Westside.
Director Blake Silver’s exquisitely realized rendition of Henry James’ eerie riff on the Gothic imagination, The Turn of the Screw, uses the living room–proportioned stockroom of a vacant Westwood Boulevard storefront and some stage fog as the setting for the lonely country estate Bly, its shimmering lake and distant tower, and its resident pair of ghost lovers, the spectral valet Peter Quint and the late governess, Miss Jessel.
The primary conceit of Jeffrey Hatcher’s elegantly simple, 1996 chamber-play adaptation is to collapse the story’s characters into two roles: Katija Pevec is spot-on as the naive and romance-addled young governess, who foolishly rushes in to take a job where more experienced heads wisely fear to tread; and Josh Zuckerman, in a flawless feat of versatility, plays everybody else, including the stoop-backed Irish housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, and mostly Miles, the precocious, 10-year-old troublemaker who, with his younger sister Flora, are the inexperienced governess’s two orphaned charges.
What both Hatcher and Silver get most right over the countless other stage and screen adaptations of James’ tale is rigorously following the dictum that when it comes to generating frights, less is always more. What we imagine is lurking in the darkness is far scarier than anything rendered by CGI. To that end, Hatcher both amps the mystery and cleverly simplifies the casting by making Flora a traumatized mute whose presence is suggested only in pantomime. In addition to the fog, Silver deepens the narrative’s psychological shadows through low-key, LED candle lighting and by circulating amber flashlights among the 20 or so audience members who wield them as fill and follow spots throughout.
But the show’s more astute coup is the way it enlarges on James’ already ironic and erotically charged language to present a portrait of 19th-century English sexual repression gone wild. This is a world in which proper Victorian euphemisms seethe with racy double entendre, and Pevec is delightfully alive to every taboo nuance. Silver doubles down on the wordplay with choreographed movement that gives full vent to the governess’ escalating hysteria and that reframes James’ climax as a more shocking act of ecstatic transgression worthy of Roman Polanski.
By comparison, the haunt in playwright Kristin Idaszak’s Second Skin, receiving its local premiere in Kate Jopson’s atmospheric, site-specific staging on Santa Monica Beach, seems almost soberly sedate. Happily it is anything but. That’s because the emotionally fraught mindscape being excavated is the murky no-man’s land of mother-daughter and sister-sister relationships, refracted through the mythic lens of Celtic sea legend.
The show, a co-production of Jopson’s Flagship Ensemble and The West company, which, its website says, seeks “contemporary analogues for the ancient campfire rituals,” is currently barnstorming Southern California’s beach towns. The analogue here might be the tail end of a SoCal beach party, at the point when the night chill closes in and the revelers settle by the firepit for storytelling (on designer JR Bruce’s simple, midbeach playing circle).
Second Skin plays as a Rashomon-like weave of three very different points of view: that of the daughter Quinn (played by Susannah Rea-Downing); her oddly mercurial but now ailing mother, Sigrid (Claire Kaplan); and Aislinn (Sarah Halford), Sigrid’s long-deceased sister. The overlaps describe two fateful beach encounters with a selkie, a creature from Irish folklore that is said to be the soul of the drowned, which lives as a seal in the sea but can shed its skin to become human for brief terrestrial forays. Should one steal the selkie’s skin, however, the creature becomes trapped on land until it can recover it from the thief.
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As befits a memory play about shame and guilt and the tragic consequences of misunderstanding, Idaszak artfully backs into the evening’s mystery with Quinn relating her fragmented, child recollections of Sigrid’s seeming eccentricities. As each successive narrator takes over and retells the tale, the perspective gradually widens, the gaps in understanding are narrowed, and the scene becomes set for a climactic exorcism that is both literal and figurative.
Throughout it all, Jopson deploys her superb ensemble to powerful effect, expertly using both the setting sun and the vistas of savage surf and expansive sand to frame the kind of deep-focus pictures impossible on a stage but that here are both sensually evocative and poetically emblematic: Love is an implacable force of nature, Second Skin poignantly insists, with the power to imperil as well as redeem. Dress warmly.
The Turn Of The Screw, behind Sirens/Titans Fitness 2311 Westwood Blvd., West L.A. (entrance on Tennessee Ave.); through May 7. (323) 782-1849, eventbrite.com. Second Skin, in front of Annenberg Beach House, 415 Pacific Coast Hwy., Santa Monica; through May 15. theflagshipensemble.com.