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A CurtainUp Review
Room Tone

I have several times within the past few years felt the so-called 'consciousness of a presence.' The experiences which I have in mind are clearly distinguishable from another kind of experience which I have had very frequently, and which I fancy many persons would also call the 'consciousness of a presence.' But the difference for me between the two sets of experience is as great as the difference between feeling a slight warmth originating I know not where, and standing in the midst of a conflagration with all the ordinary senses alert.
---William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

Getting one's hands around that which is amorphous is perhaps the greatest of all challenges in the theater. And so it must be said that it is that oxymoronic achievement that marks Elevator Repair Service's remarkable and intriguing new effort. This is the company's tenth season, and its tenth original work and, if nothing else, it is a shot across the bow of any of its peers in the world of downtown experimental theater who think they are doing better, more thoughtful or more thought-provoking work.

Henry James's gothic novella, The Turn of the Screw, is a work of considerable ambiguity. Is it, as its author suggests in his preface, an old-fashioned ghost story (of the sort we associate with Halloween -- fresh in my mind as I saw this show on All Hallow's Day), or is it a "real" ghost story (of the sort about which Henry's brother, William, wrote.) An unimaginable number of words have been consumed in debating this -- far more than the book itself contains, fomented by Henry's layered narration that leaves readers uncertain who, if anyone, they should believe.

Elevator Repair Service ventures into the subject with a production that toys with the audience's senses, strips Henry's novella to its bones and integrates it with brother William's treatise (against all odds, without losing us somewhere along the way). The result is at once literate and complete yet riveting and entertaining.

It begins quite literally in the dark, and John Collins lighting design keeps P.S. 122's electrical bill low throughout. (The photograph above shows one of the more brightly lit scenes.) Michael Kraskin's sound design compensates for our sensory deprivation on the visual front with an abundant aural landscape that is creepy but without a predictable "haunted house" motif.

The story commences with an absentee uncle (Charlie Schroeder) interviewing a new governess (Maggie McBrien) to care for his niece and nephew, Flora (Katherine Profeta) and Miles (Susie Sokol). They live at his country home and the circumstances of the demise of the previous governess (Rinne Groff) are fuzzy. As a condition of employment, the governess must agree to handle whatever problems arise and not to contact the uncle under any circumstances. We also witness scenes, some quite normal and some not, involving the first governess and the children. The direction wisely eschews any strict attention to time or place.

The new governess arrives at the estate to find the sweet young Flora. Miles is away at school, but returns shortly, with news that he has been expelled (for reasons never explained). He too seems quite nice at first but his behavior becomes increasingly peculiar. The anxiety level is further ratcheted up when mysterious people start to appear in the shadows. It all reaches a fever pitch, aided immensely by a dose or two of Elevator Repair Service's signature style of movement and dance.

Two mainstays of Elevator Repair Service's productions find their way into this cast: Susie Sokol, who always seems to snag the shows' most arresting character (or does she just make it so?) and Rinne Groff, who is endlessly intriguing whether onstage or off. Ms. Sokol gets the more combustible role here again, but both are excellent. They are joined by Maggie McBrien, who among other things succeeds in maintaining our interest as she delivers some of the densest material imaginable (and in the dark, no less); Charlie Schroeder, who maintains a taut, businesslike demeanor to near perfection; and Katherine Profeta, better known as the company's choreographer, who is both effective and believable as the show's youngest character.

Created by the company but without more detailed credit, one can assume much of the kudos for Room Tone are due to its co-directors, John Collins and Steve Bodow, who have masterfully staged this riveting piece. Experimental need not mean haphazard, and there is nothing casual on display here. In the proper hands, clarity can be found even in an enigmatic haze.

Total Fictional Lie
Highway to Tomorrow

Room Tone
by Elevator Repair Service, inspired by William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, among other sources
Directed by John Collins and Steve Bodow
with Charlie Schroeder, Maggie McBrien, Katherine Profeta, Rinne Groff and Susie Sokol
Set Design: Heike Schuppelius
Lighting Design: John Collins
Costume Design: Colleen Werthmann
Sound design: Michael Kraskin

Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes with no intermission
A production of Elevator Repair Service
P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue (@9th ST)
Telephone: (212) 477-5288
THURS - SUN @7:30; $17
Opening October 25, 2002, closing November 24, 2002
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 11/1/02 performance

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