Something wicked this way comes to Utah Valley in the form of two shadowed shapes, masquerading as highly theatrical plays. The Turn of the Screw at The Covey Center for the Arts, and Nosferatu at Utah Valley University are both superb pieces of theater that deserve sold out audiences and loud applause. They both boast superb casts and visionary directors. If you live in the Utah Valley area, run, yea, scream to the box office, if you have to. Whatever you do, pick up tickets to these shows, if you have the slightest enjoyment of theater or Halloween… you won’t regret it.
I remember thinking several years ago that Halloween seemed to be a missed opportunity when it came to Utah’s theater community. The past few years, however, have seemed to alter that, as theater producers have been realizing how popular seasonal events like these can be. Not too many years ago the Hale Center Theater in Orem put on a superb production of Wait Until Dark. BYU recently finished up a production of the classic thriller Dial M For Murder (why they didn’t play it through Halloween is beyond me). Performances of plays as varied Blithe Spirit and Sweeney Todd and The Crucible have planned their productions around the haunting season this year. Utah Valley University seems to be making it a semi-regular tradition now, having not too many years ago put up my adaptation of Legends of Sleepy Hollow (to a completely sold out run… I’m telling you, Halloween sells) and now Nosferatu.
Speaking of Nosferatu (a segueway into the subject at hand!), this is one cool piece of theater! The brain child of UVU professor and much-in-demand-director Chris Clark, this dazzling piece of theater is living proof of the man’s genius and UVU’s status as a rising star in the local theater scene. And I’m not just saying that because I graduated from there. I was there for a time when UVU had a bit of a slump in the program. Yet as I progressed in the program, I saw the department build upon the work of its pioneering predecessors and make some powerful decisions under the leadership of department chair D. Terry Petrie and favorable faculty acquisitions such as Chris Clark. It’s a totally different beast than when I started at UVU. And now they are regularly putting on innovative and powerful pieces of theater such as Nosferatu.
Chris Clark, who in the past has been known for his Midas’s touch with Shakespeare, will have to be careful, lest being a craftsman of ghost stories and vampire lore becomes his new niche. I saw Chris’s love for Halloween first hand when he commissioned me to write Legends of Sleepy Hollow so that he could direct it. It’s a favorite holiday of his. He gets it. The mood, the lore, the ambience… it flows naturally from him. Which is of great benefit to Nosferatu. Adapted by Clark from the cult classic silent vampire film by F.W. Murnau (which borrowed very heavily from Braham Stoker’s Dracula), this isn’t your typical piece of theater. Clark has created a mixed media production, basically re-creating the film on stage. The show has a film crew shoot it as a silent film and project it in glorious black and white on a screen above the actors (complete with dialogue cards a certain amount of footage from the original movie). The only words one hears from the play are the cues voiced by the film crew, as they film the actors. The rest of the mood relies on well executed and well chosen music, as the real story is expressed through movement, the actors performing it as a silent film actor would have done it at the time the original film was made. And the cast does a superb job at this. It’s as if they’re channeling the old time actors, they do such an impressive job imitating the style. Mark Oram as Knock, Heather Murdock as Ellen and the wonderfully creepy Tom Fernlund as Count Orlock the vampire are the stand out performances amidst a very fine (and rather large) cast.
Proper recognition must be given to the technical achievement of this show. The make-up (especially the make-up! The demonic Count Orlock is some of the best theatrical make up I’ve seen!) by Mandy Lyons and her talented team, costuming by Anna Marie Johnson and lighting by Mike James were all wonders to behold! Not to mention the finely crafted film work by Joel Petrie (an especially effective moment was when Count Orlock disappears on the film at the end of the story, while we still see the actor on stage).
This show was bold, innovative and thought out of the box. Re-creating a good deal of self effacing humor along with the genuinely moody and dark ambience the original film created made a theatrical event I’m not likely to forget anytime soon.
The other powerful Halloween tale playing in the valley right now trades vampires for ghosts… or are they? Turn of the Screw, playing at the Covey Center for the Arts, is adapted from the classic novella by Henry James with skillful artistry by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher. Drawing as much from the literary criticism sorrounding the story as the actual story itself, the play poses a good many questions about what exists in our minds and what is indeed real and supernatural. It also has questions about affection and what happens when we are not given this vital and basic need. Psychological drama as much as ghost story, the classic tale follows a governess who is given charge of two children, but with the express orders that she is to never contact their guardian about them– even when, it turns out, they are in the most dire need. Soon figures from the children’s past appear to the governess as she tries to piece together why she can see these figures when no one else can (except for perhaps the children?).
As with Nosferatu, this play rises on the wings of its director. Kimberley Mellen is a revelation to me, for I had very little previous knowledge of her until now. The concepts and execution of this play in Mellen’s hands are nothing short of miraculous.
To understand the limitations set upon her (and then the amazing things she did with the space), one has to understand the Covey Center’s “little theater.” It’s not that much of a theater, it’s really just a big room painted black with risers and installed theatrical lights. And before those lights came in, I have seen productions in there where the stage manager would just turn on and off the lights for scene changes. Actors have to enter through the same doors the audience does, and often music or other performances can be heard from downstairs where the more “grand” theater exists. So, to say the least, it’s never been an ideal space. But Ms. Mellen does something splendid with the space, using it to her utmost advantage.
Instead of staging the play in its proper Victorian period, the director garbs her actors in simple black clothing and relies heavily upon masks for most of the characters except the governess. She creates a square out of shower curtains, which can be drawn back and forth throughout the play, and which have a whitish, transluecent quality to them. With the curtains off-setting them, the black, large brick walls behind the actors suddenly seem less like a room, and instead take a very disturbing, clinical quality to them. As if you have just found yourself in an asylum.
As the curtains are drawn back and forth, back and forth, back and forth with increasingly reckless abandon, where this governess exists and what she tells us becomes highly debatable and we do not know whether we are being “seduced” into her way of thinking, or whether what she is telling us is real. A hand held, electric lantern is also used throughout the play, sometimes pointing at the audience (again, an uncomfortable glare), sometimes shadowing the actors in frightening ways, sometimes casting our focus (or distracting it) to and from where it needs to be. All of these elements combine to make a very visceral and highly dramatic theatrical experience. This revelation of Mellen’s talent, I hope, is only a preview of great things to come from her. She easily joins people like Chris Clark, David Morgan and Barta Heiner in my personal pantheon of favorite directors.
And, of course, half of the job of good directing is good casting. Here Ms. Mellen does not disappoint either. All of the roles are divided between two actors. Rachel Baird plays the lonely governess, while Benjamin King plays everyone else. Ms. Baird gives a startling beautiful, yet frightening, portrayal of this governess. Aching, lonely, vulnerable, yet with a repressed passion and strength, it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen all year. A perfect complement to Ms. Baird is her fellow actor Ben King, who is a force of nature in and of himself in this play. Taking on several very distinctly different roles (complimented by some very evocative masks), he is able to give us a very convincing portrayals ranging from a seductive employer, trapping the governess into a strange and often frightening occupation; to a vulnerable, yet slightly creepy young boy, quite the feat since King towers above the governess; to the housekeeper, which King does a surprisingly excellent job at, considering his manly height and physique. Between the two performers, the show was one of the best acted pieces of theater that I have seen for a very long time.
So between Nosferatu and Turn of the Screw, there is a chance for Utah Valley Residents to see truly compelling theater and get their Halloween tricks and treats at the same time. Corn mazes and haunted houses are all part of the fun of the season, but I hope that it becomes a tradition within the valley to see shows like this every All Hallow’s Eve.