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Flash Review 1, 10-31: "Room Tone"
ERS Dims the Lights and Turns the Screw

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2002 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- Elevator Repair Service has returned to PS 122 with its tenth original work, "Room Tone," inspired by the writings of William James and based on brother Henry James's eerie "The Turn of the Screw." Remember? Two siblings, Flora and Miles, and their nanny inhabit a remote, haunted mansion. Mayhem ensues.

Let me say right away that, although ERS calls itself a dance company, this is theater, not dance by any but the most abstruse definition of the word; although the characters' movement is choreographic, outright dancing is negligible. This hour-long deconstructed narrative is performed largely in pitch-blackness. The dim lighting by John Collins is cleverly conceived, using work lights and ambient light that occasionally spills in through the exit doors, but it's so dark, even when the stage is lit, that most of the time your eyes strain to see the action.

At the start, the Uncle (Charlie Schroeder) stumbles into the audience in the dark, talking about an old love affair that turned out badly. Still in the audience -- still in the dark -- he interviews a potential new Governess (Maggie McBrien) for his niece and nephew, who live on a remote estate he never visits. She spouts arcane philosophy in a monotone and asks what happened, by the way, to the previous governess. She doesn't get an answer.

The action alternates between the total darkness and glare of the Uncle's world, and the dusky mansion, where the children, Flora and Miles (Katherine Profeta and Susie Sokol) torment their Governess (Rinne Groff). Flora dunks her frog in nanny's tea; Miles storms in, pounds the frog to death, and scribbles noisily on a pad of paper; Michael Kraskin's sound amplifies the sounds. The kids grill the Governess for personal information: three words she hates are viscous, pulchritude, and eggplant. She gives Miles a music lesson, plunking the xylophone, as he perversely growls a melody.

The world of the Uncle and that of the children begin to overlap, as the father walks across the stage to his file cabinet, oblivious to the goings on there, and the Governess senses danger and bats at unseen spirits with a two-by-four. The performers are convincing, especially Schroeder, but generally, their energy is so understated that the dialog is often inaudible, even in this intimate theater.

There is some suspense and a shocking finish -- if you're not familiar with "The Turn of the Screw." If you do know the story, it's interesting to see what details are included and which are omitted. It's a philosophically provocative piece of performance, but have a latte before you see the show, because the murky lighting is somniferous. "Room Tone" continues, Thursdays to Sundays at 7:30 p.m., through November 24.

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