If Lora Adams’ name is on something there’s one guarantee: it’s going to look AMAZING. And Black Box’s Turn of the Screw is no exception to that rule. The latest offering from the intimate Black Box – and ONLY live theatre event in the Quad Cities this summer – looks and feels as eerie as it should.

This particular production has that Disney detail thing going on. It’s like a bunch of Imagineers flew in from Anaheim and rocked a stellar set, lighting and costume design. It looks THAT good. The “Imagineers” in the case are set designer (and director) Lora Adams, lighting designer David Miller (co-owner – with Adams – of the Black Box), set builder Michael Kopriva and scenic artist Tom Vaccaro. It a solid team and they deliver. From the moment you entered the theatre, you were in that environment. Now… Whether or not the world going through a global pandemic on the outside helps with the horror factor is an argument that can be had, but I would venture to see the discomfort and unease as a major plus for this piece.

Black Box Theater's 'Turn Of The Screw' Is Creepy, Must-See TheaterThe piece itself, adapted from the Henry James novella by Jeffrey Hatcher, has always felt like it was missing something.  And perhaps a familiarity with the original Henry James text would help fill in the pieces of the puzzle? This is the third (and quite frankly BEST) version I have seen and it still seem disjointed and unsure of what it wants to really be.  Hatcher is inventive in his approach, however – with only two actors – and reaches heights of psychological horror but its biggest is this: it is never maintained making it a nearly impossible feat for even the most skilled artists to effectively pull off.

Luckily, for Black Box the material isn’t an issue due to the rock star level of excellence in execution. Director Lora Adams reminds us once again that she is the best in the area at navigating drama and creating a certain connection – whether it be of tenderness or tension, or in this case, moments of terror. Adams hand is careful and unseen and to the naked eye her work would go relatively unnoticed and that’s the mark of a great director.  Adding to Adams’s beautifully nuanced work is David Miller’s emotional lighting design. Helping to convey each and every moment’s intentions, Miller uses color and intensity in smart and subtle ways (yes, I saw that water effect in the lake stage left and the lighting placement for the lightning behind the trees) to add the horror unfolding on stage.

Kayla Jo Pulliam delivers a wonderfully nuanced and at first subtle but than ravaging performance of a governess descending into madness. Pulliam isn’t “performing” as much as she’s understanding and living in each and every moment, making those final moments extremely effective.  As “The Man” – tasked with playing multiple characters, sometimes switching between them with a simple turn –  Matthew Walsh is extremely captivating. His multilayered, fully realized characterizations are a master class. Vocally, physically, emotionally… it’s riveting to watch him switch back and forth so effortlessly.

Black Box Theater's 'Turn Of The Screw' Is Creepy, Must-See Theater

Matt Walsh and Kayla Jo Pulliam perform “The Turn of the Screw” at Black Box Theatre, Moline.

As good as it is, Turn of the Screw is not necessarily escapism from the current climate, but it offers a different kind of horror. It’s psychological. It’s emotional. It’s intellectual. It’s definitely not happy or bright. It’s dark and dreary. But it’s GOOD art. Hell, it’s ART. And right now, art of any kind – LIVE ART especially – is hard to come by and it was hard not to acknowledge the history that was being made tonight.

The area theatre scene – except for an outdoor event at Circa ’21 earlier this summer – has been dormant and Black Box is the first (and just might be the only) to offer any live entertainment since this pandemic began in March. There’s something to be said about the courage and will power behind that decision. There’s also something to said about how it was done – masks must be worn in the theatre, temperature checks are taken at the door, mandatory sanitizing before entry, no programs, socially distanced seating… even the performers were wearing face shields (but after about a minute you forgot they were there)… Black Box is setting a new standard in safety and excellence during an almost impossible time for show business.

Hopefully there’s more to come from Black Box and other area theaters as Illinois moves forward with their fight against the pandemic, but if there isn’t anything until later in 2020 or early 2021 as experts predict, and if we only get one show until then, I am down with it being Turn of the Screw. It’s really that good.

 

THE TURN OF THE SCREW

July 17 and 18 – 7:30pm – $16

July 19 – 2:00pm – $16

Doors open 15 minutes before showtime.

Masks required.

Visit TheBlackBoxTheatre.com for tickets!

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Black Box Theater's 'Turn Of The Screw' Is Creepy, Must-See Theater
Tristan Layne Tapscott has been dubbed the “Quad Cities’ P.T. Barnum” and although the person who initially said it meant it as an insult, he happily accepts the title.