'Strange' happenings in play having world premiere at Krannert

'Strange' happenings in play having world premiere at Krannert

URBANA — It's a dark story in a dark place.

An unsettling and ambiguous version of Henry James' unsettling and ambiguous 1898 novella, "The Turn of the Screw," is getting its world premiere at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts tonight.

Retitled and reworked as "Strange Window," the ghost story gets an entirely new take from the Builders Association, a professional company that has won two Obie Awards.

Founded in 1994 by Marianne Weems, the company has recently been in residence at Krannert, part of a long history here that includes a collaboration with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

Weems praised its relationship with the performing arts center.

"Our relationship to the Krannert Center has been central to the life of the company. Under the leadership of Mike Ross," she said, "the Krannert Center has become known nationally as an advocate for this kind of adventurous art, and their support both on the stage and behind the scenes has been so important to our last several productions."

This is high tech and imaginative work.

"In Master Builder, we came up with a system that allowed the actors to perform with the technology, and to influence its behavior onstage," Weems said.

"For example, we wired video and sound cues to MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) triggers, and the performers could choose when to activate them. The set became like a reactive tool, like a musical instrument they could play. We even invited the audience to 'play' the house after each performance."

In a rehearsal last week, the company used a dark image on which live actors in front of it are projected, speaking their lines to eerie sound effects and music.

It blends the best of theater and cinema. Split-screen techniques might remind you of classics like "Thomas Crowne Affair," and extreme close-ups evoke the "Spaghetti Westerns" that made Clint Eastwood famous, though the company was not influenced by the era.

And yet it is all live and unfolding before you.

It's hard to imagine a more high-tech affair; there are at least a half dozen computer monitors used by the company.

Don't get up: There's no intermission, and you could miss something important.

The novella tells the story of a young, impressionable governess who may have psychological issues. In one scene at the rehearsal, longtime servant Mrs. Grose works out her worries about the new governess taking care of a brother and sister in a country home — with a ghost story building to its climax.

It also adds some humorous elements to break up the unbearable tension.

Even for the actors.

"You look huge on screen. It's a little crazy. And I don't always know what's going on when I'm not in the scene," said the play's youngest thespian, 7-year-old Finley Tarr.

She plays the daughter under the control of the governess in the complicated situation.

Is the company compelled to find new possibilities in older works like James' "The Turn of The Screw?"

Writer James Gibbs said inspiration can come from a wide variety of sources.

"Our past few shows have, in part, used existing texts or stories as jumping-off points. 'House Divided' was a mash-up of 'The Grapes of Wrath' with the 2008 mortgage-backed securities crisis, and 'The Elements of Oz' retold elements of 'The Wizard of Oz' and examined the many constituencies which have taken possession of that story and created allegories from it," he said.

Gibbs said the company always looks for new ways for staging stories and ideas.

"In a way, beginning with a known story is a great laboratory for this work; when the audience already has a sense of the body of a story, our 'surgeries' on that body are more legible. All of that said, we want to begin with compelling stories that lend themselves to further investigation and study and which might create some resonance with contemporary issues," he said.

During one rehearsal, there seemed to be at least a half dozen computer monitors in the seats at the rehearsal.

"It can be a challenge to coordinate when creating a show, as each element is working towards a moving target, but the great advantage is that it is not a challenge to integrate the elements, since they've been built up together, from a phase of sketching to final work," Gibbs said.

If you go

What: "Strange Windows" world premiere

Where: Colwell Playhouse, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

When: 7:30 p.m. tonight

Tickets: $10-$25

Coming Sunday

Read Melissa Merli's review of "Strange Windows."