Circle of Haunts, the new "ghost opera with dance" from Xoregos Performing Company, is an elegant new adaptation of Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw, presented in a variety of modes including conventional drama, storytelling, dance, and song. Director-choreographer-conceiver-producer Shela Xoregos has crafted this production to be spare and simple, so that it can easily travel to non-traditional performing spaces such as the public library where I saw it; all of the showings are free and designed to bring surprising and unusual works of theater to diverse audiences in all the boroughs.
As you may know, James' story concerns a young woman, Miss Ardsley, who has just arrived at a remote English estate to be governess to the two children, Miles and Flora, who live there with their uncle, their parents having died sometime before. Almost immediately, Miss Ardsley realizes that something is wrong here; there is evil afoot, and it has to do with her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and the master's valet, an enigmatic man named Peter Quint. Miss Ardsley intuits that the children are in mortal danger. Can she save them?
Because the story is possibly familiar to many audience members, Xoregos has wisely determined to let the shape of the storytelling be just as mysterious and startling as the plot itself. So the piece begins with mood-setting evocations of other ghost stories from Shakespeare (Hamlet, Banquo, and Macbeth's Witches all makes appearances). And the narrative unfolds sometimes in spoken dialogue, frequently in a cappella arias and recitative, and, in the piece's stunning climax, in a dance sequence that is emotive, resonant, and quite lovely.
The script by Dave DeChristopher is appropriately gothic and spooky. Costumes by Maria Rosario are handsome and true to the period. Most striking is the music by Andrew Selle, which is mostly operatic in style; for the ballet segment, cast members are given simple instruments to play to excellent effect.
A cast of nine bring the work to life vividly, with my personal favorites being Josiah Guitian and Carolina Santos Read as the ballet versions of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel (their performance of Xoregos' choreography is exquisite). I also enjoyed young Benjamin Slater as Miles and Kate Fallon as Miss Ardsley. Nick Addeo, Colette Dollon, David Allen Green, Maria Michaels, and Mary Orzano complete the talented ensemble.
Shela Xoregos has been bringing her trademark smart, economical productions to New York City audiences for about a decade now, and we should be enormously grateful to her for what she does. The theater arts should not only be accessible to folks with high disposable incomes. The audiences who get to experience her work for free, and the many young artists who have worked with her in presenting it, are all the richer for her contributions.