Photo: JOHN HOWREY
When you hear that Ryan Landry is starring in a production called Turn of the Screw, your mind immediately thinks dirty things. After all, this is the infamous founder of the flaming Gold Dust Orphans troupe, whose name is synonymous with such carnalized musical skewerings as Phantom of the Oprah, Who's Afraid of the Virgin Mary, and Joan of Arkansas - the likes of which inspired us to hand the Orphans the "Best Titles for Theatrical Productions" award in our 2010 Best issue.
Now for something truly shocking: Turn of the Screw is a Henry James ghost story, and Landry is playing it straight - in a two-person production running October 21 through November 7 at the Stoneham Theatre.
Landry's co-star Molly Schreiber may not yet inspire automatic name recognition, but don't pass over the young, Tisch-trained talent. Schreiber has been turning heads since her delightful turn in Actors' Shakespeare Project's five-person production of Henry V two years back (including The Phoenix's own glowing review). Since then, she's stacked up credits with the Huntington Theatre, in a handful of small films, and on the Improv Asylum Mainstage.
Now, Schreiber's been cast as the maybe-crazy governess and protagonist in James' Halloween-worthy tale, as adapted for two actors by Jeffrey Hatcher. Landry tackles a bevy of other characters, including the governess's mysterious employer, the employer's young niece and nephew, and a female housekeeper. I visited their rehearsal last Sunday and watched Landry put his own spin on the bratty 10-year-old Miles, while Schreiber countered with the governess's pious stubbornness. I stole fifteen minutes with them when they reached a stopping point, and they plunged back into the rehearsal as soon as I let them go.
Your publicist told me that you two actually auditioned as a pair. Did you know each other previously?
MOLLY: We had met each other twice, very briefly. We didn't really know each other. And then before callbacks, I can't remember whether it was ... you maybe called me up and said, "Do you want to get together and really work through this?" I think we did twenty or thirty pages of the script. When we came in for the callback, we were in a pretty solid place.
RYAN: Molly's one of those people that, you know, being the queen that I am, when I see a beautiful woman that gives me a sort of ... "Who is that woman?" [Molly laughs] It's true! There's nothing bad about it! I saw her, and she was one of those people. She just had that smile, and that sort of way about her. She just glowed a little bit, and I was like, "Who is that girl?" I said it to Peter DuBois, and he goes, "Oh, that's Molly." And I asked all about her and all kinds of things like that.
Then, I asked Caitlin [Lowans, Screw's director] when I first came to the reading who she had in mind to play the governess. Molly's name was the first name she said. [turns to Caitlin] And didn't I sit right up? My bad posture suddenly straightened up.
At first I thought, oh, I'm not gonna get in, I'm too much of a clown, too much of a goofus, like I always say about myself. But when I heard that Molly was going to do it — and I knew from talking with her for just a short bit, because she did come to one of my shows, and we talked after that — I felt so comfortable around her. And I don't really feel that with a lot of Boston actor types, for some reason. So, when I heard her name, all of a sudden I was like, "I've really got to learn this."
[to Molly] So, I called you, or I got ahold of you somehow, and I said, "They're thinking of you for that other part." And that's when I said what you just said, which is, "Ooh, let's really nail it." So she came to my house in Dorchester. Risked her life!
MOLLY: Down the entirety of the Red Line! And then we read through it for maybe two or three hours. And had lunch, chatted, and then worked through that whole first chunk. Ryan had actually memorized the whole first twenty-five pages.
RYAN: It was too bad I didn't do the whole fifty.
Have you two ever worked in a cast this small before?
MOLLY: I have, yeah. I have worked in a two-person show before. I did a production of the The Maids. It had a similar feel; it's a similar world of plays. But this one, textually, is far more complex for me. And even just the syntax of the language, I find far more difficult to absorb and memorize. We've been going through it; there's just more and more that comes out of the language every day, so it's rather difficult. We're getting there.
RYAN: I think this Henry James character's got a career ahead of him. If he keeps his nose clean.
Ryan, what's it been like playing multiple roles?
RYAN: Fun! I've done it before in my shows [with Gold Dust Orphans], only because I'm too cheap to hire all of those extra actors. But, no, it's great. Who's Afraid of the Virgin Mary was the one I did with Larry Coen, and it was basically a two-person play, but it did have another couple characters in it for the short scenes.
It's great. It's a wonderful opportunity, and I have to say, it's very rare that the Boston theater community takes a chance on me. I think they think of me as a nut bag, which I am. But I have to really hand it to Stoneham Theatre and Caitlin and Matt [Chapuran] for giving me this chance, because often, that doesn't happen. It's quite something.
Is it new for you to play a child?
RYAN: No, no. I've done it before. I think at 45, I played a 12-year-old somewhere around there. Joan of Arkansas, I was 12.
MOLLY: Were they all possessed?
RYAN: Joan? No! She was a heroine. Her granny was a moon-shiner. It's a long story. She was possessed by liquor.
In the original short story, it's ambiguous as to whether the governess is going insane and there are no ghosts and the children are fine, or whether there really are ghosts and the children are possessed. Does that happen in the play, too, or is it clear that it's one or the other?
RYAN AND MOLLY: [at once] It is not clear!
MOLLY: In fact, I think the three of us all have varied perspectives on what is real.
RYAN: I think she's totally insane.
MOLLY: And it takes three times longer to get through each scene, because we all have to come back to it and be like, "But how are you hearing this? And how are you saying it?" And the idea that the governess perceives what is said to her in a very different way than it may be said, from Miles. And Miles may be saying it just as an innocent little boy, and she's twisting it in her distorted prism, or he actually is possessed and he's saying it in a demonic, manipulative way. So, it's very confusing.
So, when you're playing the governess, you obviously believe you're sane. But you, as Molly, outside the show - do you have a position on whether or not she is insane?
MOLLY: I do have a position. I am not of the perspective that this is all in her mind. I am of the perspective that this is somewhat of a re-enactment of how it happened, but I do not think there are any ghosts. I think that is all her perception distorting things, and filtering things through that filter of thinking that there are ghosts. And then, you can see what you want to see. I think she's ... batty!
Are you hoping that the audience will be frightened?
RYAN: They will be!
Will they think of it as a ghost story, or as a frightening story of an insane person?
MOLLY: Ooh, that's a good question. I think that will be up to the audience member. I think there will be people who come out of it saying, "Oh, there are ghosts," and people saying, "No, it's completely a woman who's gone crazy." I do hope that there are frightening moments. I think we will see which of those moments land. I don't think we will be able to anticipate –
RYAN: Oh, they're all gonna land.
MOLLY: But sometimes you don't know which ones come off as the scary moments and which ones always come off as funny moments, until you get out there. But I hope there are some scary moments. I also hope there are some great send-up comedy moments, too.
Could you two tell me about the shape of the stage you're working with? [It's an oblong trapezoid.] Is the stage going to be raised, and the audience will be right next to those points?
RYAN: Yes! How did you know that already? Did someone tell you?
No, I just watched you rehearsing and thought it would be cool.
RYAN: That's exactly how they designed it!
MOLLY: The deck will be raised. We will be seemingly a foot above the height of the audience, and it will also be on a rake.
What's it like working with a strangely shaped stage?
MOLLY: In some ways, it's been very helpful, because it's a play that has no other practical set. So, everything is conveyed to the audience by the separation of spaces. Since there are no scene breaks, no black outs, and no costume changes really, the only thing that we have is visually creating the space with our language and then trying to contain ourselves into certain spaces. So, the irregularity of the space has made it easier to try and delineate where we are: in the house, or in the garden, indoors, outdoors, etcetera. I think we will see when we get up there.
RYAN: I do like the shape of the stage, in the sense of the sharpness and angles of it. It does feel like it can match a certain intensity of a scene. Does that make sense?
MOLLY: It does have a feeling of coming out, spilling out into the audience. We do not have a contained feeling to this show. It is sort of growing and taking over the space.
RYAN: It's very abstract, too. There's a lot of abstraction. There are times when a character is, as explained, way out in the distance and another character is calling to them. But ... spatially, it's not set in reality so much.
CAITLIN LOWANS: I think there are a lot of questions with the narrator. Point of view is really important. You're looking at it from a certain perspective, and whose perspective is it? So, spatially, we're not representing things realistically. There's an abstraction between the ways people relate to each other in the space, which calls back to the idea that if we can't trust the space, how much can we trust someone's perspective?
At the same time, if you tell me that I'm all the way across the universe from someone, I don't need to see that you're all the way across the universe, because I've already been told that. So, the audience gets to imagine a little bit.
So, what's a typical rehearsal day like? Lots and lots of hours in a row, from what I understand.
RYAN: First, I rub balm into the whip marks that Caitlin puts on my back.
MOLLY: We come in, and we just start working. We start staging. We go through the text maybe once or twice just seated, speaking. Then we get up and start putting together ideas of what physical patterns we want, what space we want to use, where we are in the play and in the space within the play. And then, many times throughout working on a scene, we'll have to pause and really talk through it. There's a lot of ambiguity. There are a lot of moments that are very complex, very layered. And then we'll go through that bit five times –
MOLLY: Fifteen? [Both laugh] Then we'll go back and maybe piece it together with the scene we did before and after, and so on.
RYAN: My stuff has always been directed by the same director for fifteen years. Of course I've done other side projects, but I've never felt this kind of closeness to a director as Caitlin ... But also, with me and Molly and Caitlin, we really have a triangle going. We really listen to each other. We really disagree. And we really agree. What's great about that is, if you've got three strong personalities that really have something to say, and are really thinking about this — not just slacking off — then we're developing more of a world.
There are all kinds of different people in the audience. So, all of the different people are going to have very different opinions, as we do. But we're able to work together really well. We're really on the same goal, and that is to make the show great.
Has there ever been a time when you two have really wanted to do something, and Caitlin hasn't wanted you to do it?
RYAN: Not really. She lets us ...
MOLLY: It's weird. Either we'll try it and we don't work, or one of us will have a different opinion. That's been the case far more often.
That the two of you have been at cross purposes?
MOLLY: Yeah. And since this play is so very much a dance, and a pas de deux –
RYAN: A what?
MOLLY: A pas de deux.
RYAN: That sounds like a chocolate dessert.
MOLLY: It's a dance. [imitates Boston accent] A duet. It's two people doin' a little, uh, two-step.
Since it is so much of a dance, I think there's so much more interaction between the two actors and reliance on having things feeling right on either side, than in most plays. A lot of times you'll be working on a scene and think, "maybe this isn't working so much," but you'll put it entirely in the hands of the director or whatever. This one, I feel like a lot of it is in our hands. We've been checking in with each other, saying, "what if we tried this" or "what if we re-arranged the staging because it doesn't work" or "it might be helpful for me" or "maybe this works better for the audience." So there's been a lot of communication between the three of us, of what we want, ideas we're tossing off to each other, and vetoing, and trying new things. It's been very communicative.
Last question, since I'm almost out of time. If Gold Dust Orphans did a parody version of Turn of the Screw, what would it be called, and what would it be like?
RYAN: It would be called The Screw Keeps Turning. Or, As the Screw Turns! That's what it would be called. [Molly laughs] And what would it be a parody of? I don't know, because, I mean, I can take James's language and play with it, but the more we work with the script and the more Caitlin helps us, I can't fucking believe it. Where are the writers like this? Will they ever exist again? To have a story that was written over a hundred years ago, and still I could discuss this all fucking night, about whether she imagined it, or was it real? Were the ghosts real? What did James mean by it? Was he sexually repressed? Was she? It amazes me.
The only thing I think the Gold Dust Orphans would do would be a take-off on the time and the feel of it, sort of like our Medea. You don't fuck with genius. I don't even hope to kiss the hem of their gown. I simply would hope that if we did a show of this, it would make people go, "I've got to read that story again! I've got to see that movie again!" That's what we want to do anyway.
Someday Molly's going to do one of our shows, too.
She could even do Turn of the Screwed, or whatever.
RYAN: Yeah! Screwed!
MOLLY: Screwed: The Musical!
TURN OF THE SCREW | Based on the short story by Henry James | Adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Hatcher | Directed by Caitlin Lowans | at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham | October 21--November 7 | stonehamtheatre.org or 781.279.2200