Review: THE TURN OF THE SCREW messes with the truth at CATASTROPHIC THEATRE

Broadway World review: The Turn of the Screw 2023

The one thing THE CATASTROPHIC THEATRE takes deadly seriously is their brand as Houston’s most experimental theater. And if you need proof, simply attend a performance of their multimedia reinvention of THE TURN OF THE SCREW. Cinema, puppets, props, and psychic investigators all collide as they make their own version of 1898’s Henry James novella. The work has been translated into countless films, plays, operas, and even a Netflix series from Mike Flannigan. But one thing I promise you, you have never seen it done like this before. And you probably won’t ever get another chance to see something quite this inventive in any given year of Houston theater. This is a thrill to witness, and unlike anything out there. It manages to be THE BLAIR WITCH of stage stories, something you almost can’t explain fully. I am tempted to tell you, don’t read the rest of this review. The best way to go to this production is to enter it blindly as I did last weekend. I didn’t know what to expect, and if you love that kind of experience… just skip the rest of this article and go see it.

If you do not and are simply hellbent on knowing more…. Please, continue.

When the audience enters the theater you already know you are in for something. Strewn all around the space are old dolls, stereoscopes, and creepy taxidermy specimens. Some of the patrons will sit in round tables with actual dining room chairs, as if they will be doing a seance. Others will be seated in bleachers strategically placed to see over these groupings. And the actors are already there. As the show starts we find out the cast is a group of psychic investigators who are going to look at the haunting of Bly Manor and see if they can uncover “the truth” about what transpired there. We are told through items from the mansion, papers, diaries, and gifted mediums we will learn of the story of a governess who takes care of two orphaned children in a house that may be haunted by specters seeking revenge. In short, we may witness “something weird.” It is the first understatement of the evening.

Adam J. Thompson and Afsaneh Aayani have created a production where we see actors on stage, but also simultaneously filmed on a huge screen from cameras right in front of them. They drift in and out of these projections, and the entire time Hessam Dianpour performs his brilliant live score for the show from the stage (seriously, I want this soundtrack!). You witness as they manipulate puppets, props, and effects, always showing us how magic is being made, but doing it in a way that is still dizzying. It is an off-kilter experience, but it feels wholly realized. Never have I seen cinema and stage collide quite so brilliantly.

Annie Wild plays “the governess”, and she’s an astute choice for this role. Not only is she a great stage actor, but her face is so absurdly photogenic that the filmed bits pop like exclamation points whenever her face is up on the large screen. John Dunn and Brittny Bush play “the children” through puppets which is a masterstroke given that the two may be driven by demons. They handle the challenge brilliantly, and they mirror the design of the dolls with blank countenances except when called to express “the reality.” Karina Pal Montano-Bowers portrays “the narrator and the maid” with this amazing delivery that is distinctly not portentous yet feels like it has gravity. Her voice makes the audience dive into the murky waters of the show. They are an amazing cast moving through such a well-designed space that the complicated machinations of melding acting for stage and screen at the same time seems effortlessly graceful.
The entire thing is an experience, and one of those shows you will hate to miss. Kudos to the technical team which include Dat Peter Ton (video), Andrew Archer (lighting), Gage Baker (sound), Lauren Davis (props), Afsaneh Aayani and Ricky Martinez (costumes), and Zachary Finch (builder) for pulling off a show that relies so much on what they each provide. THE TURN OF THE SCREW is realized on the tech as hard as it rests on the actors, so in a way the entire company is onstage and creating this story. But it seems the true heroes of the production are the combined talents of Adam J. Thompson with Afsaneh Aayani who engineered how this would all feel and how it would appear. It works like gangbusters, and it looks stunning. The video, the puppets, the everything is immaculately executed.

At the heart of the story there is a question about truth. Is any of this truly happening? Is the governess experiencing something real? Interestingly enough Annie Wild and Karina Pal Montano-Bowers have the heaviest exchanges about the truth, the two women of the cast. One seems to represent a spiritual crisis while the other clings to what she can logically deduce. And at the heart of this production, even in the confines of the psychic investigators, we get a sense of truth having multiple meanings all at once. Sure, sometimes the presentation feels performative. The actors and the tech are reaching for something that sometimes feels bigger than what they are. But in the end, this TURN OF THE SCREW is an effective exploration of what we sense, feel, and hear. And it feels like the truth… whatever that is.

THE TURN OF THE SCREW runs through December 9th at the MATCH complex in Midtown. The performance lasts 90 minutes without any intermission. Tickets are “pay what you can”, but this one is worth a pretty significant donation. Early shows have sold out, so definitely make reservations to the performance you wish to see.