Where does horror lie? Is it external or does it come from within ourselves? What if we were the monster all along? Many shows today wrestle with this very question – there is a reason I left Strange Window and immediately wanted to go home and finish Haunting of Hill House. Horror that truly haunts is personal and comes from something within us, our fears, our wishes, our own hubris.
Writer James Gibbs and director Marianne Weems take Henry James’ classic horror novella, The Turn of the Screw, and superimpose it with images, visuals, words, and patterns from different modern times, stretching this tale into a horror story that crosses generational and technological boundaries. Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw follows James’ original story of an unnamed governess (Lucia Roderique) who takes on two charges, a 12-year-old boy names Miles (Joe Solava, voiced by Sean Donovan) and his younger sister, Flora (Finley Tarr, voiced by Hannah Heller). The story phases between time, sometimes reminiscent of old Victorian times and sometimes a modern tale of a ‘super’ nanny named Abigail (or ‘Gail” as her employers continually, unrepentantly shorten) who finds her nanny post through a Best Nanny app. Gail is told by the kids’ disinterested, fake nice, ‘super important’ Ted Talk-like aunt and uncle (Donovan and Heller are brilliantly cast here) that she would be assuming complete responsibility for the kids. They would not be available. When Gail arrives at the cottage home, she finds she’s alone with the children except for a housekeeper at a lower station than her, Mrs. Gross (Moe Angelos). Finding the children sweet, Gail gets protective when she begins to see ghostly visitors who may or may not have corrupting influences on the children. Who’s lying, who’s real, and who is hurting whom becomes the question of the play.
What Strange Window does so wonderfully is meld the world of Henry’s original story with our own modern horrors – the intrusion of technology between us, the slightly off-kilter world it traps us in. Not the technology itself, but how we use it to distance ourselves. Gail is often set apart on a raised platform with an old microphone booth set up, as though she is performing a radio play in the early turn of the century. Cameras are set up or rolled out on stage, so that live images of the performers can be captured at stark angles to be projected on scrims upstage. The harsh angles and sepia or black and white tones reminisce on 1940s horror films while the occasional image that is captured and then looped calls to mind the modern GIF, ever trapping the facial image in static-y repetition.
Interspersed are voiceovers of legal verbosity for the app disclaimers and an etiquette guide for governesses that is haunting, trippy, and almost desperate in its matter-of-fact delivery. Everything audible is just off, as though the pitch was turned up just a degree. The children are voiced by the adult actors who play the aunt and uncle and the ghosts, adding an eerie delay to image and sound. The humor is rampant, but so is this twisting dizziness that all of the different technology and modes of storytelling bring in. It is hard to ground yourself, just as Gail struggles to ground herself in her world of isolation. The director’s note touches upon the difficulty of connecting in a society defined by class roles and how a governess is ever stuck in a role that gives her all the responsibility but none of the authority. Young masters are never to be corrected unless in the direst of circumstances, of course. And while this byplay of class and gender does come through in this production, I felt most struck by the isolation of being a woman charged with raising children. Of what the world does to you when you feel alone and wanting of a cause. The Turn of the Screw began its life as a novel, was reinterpreted into a film, and now is seen blending different medium to tell the timeless story of the trappings of gender and employment and the desperation they can wrought.