Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 5, 2010

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The four faces of Hyde: Michael Sharon, center, as Dr. Jekyll, and left to right, Debra Whitfield, Robert Ian MacKenzie, Ezra Barnes and Sean Gormley as the many faces of Mr. Hyde

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher is responsible for a wealth of entertaining plays: the theatrical Compleat Female Stage Beauty, the amusing story of homicide among the elderly Murderers, and Three Viewings, a trio of monologues about life and death. He has not been as successful when adapting other material for the stage, though, and the trend continues with his disappointing adaptation Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which opens the 2010-11 season at Bristol Riverside Theatre.

The setting is London, 1883—in director Keith Baker’s production, it’s a fog-bound city dominated by dimly glowing streetlights, soot-streaked bricks and shadowy images. Jolly old England has never been so miserable—or dangerous. In the first five minutes, a man has dropped dead in the street, a father has slaughtered his family and a dog has apparently ripped out the throat of a prostitute—and to make matters worse, the corpses keep disappearing from the College of London Hospital.

Hatcher has proved himself one of America’s most entertaining dramatists. His plays are usually swiftly paced and often mingle humor with a dose of the macabre (Murderers is especially effective in this regard). Sadly, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is just the opposite. Plodding, disjointed and humorless (the entire play is as somber as a graveyard), the script suffers from an excess of characters and an overly complicated plot.

Dr. Jekyll (Michael Sharon) is a modern man of medicine who believes the human mind houses two streams of consciousness—the moral self and the primal self. To this point, he conducts clandestine experiments, hoping to isolate and eventually cure what he calls “the beast in man’s nature.” But, as you probably know, Jekyll’s experiments unleash his primal half, Edward Hyde, who embarks on a spree of obscene acts of torture and murder.

The play is overpopulated with hordes of supporting characters (the able but unspectacular cast plays multiple roles), none of which is especially interesting or well-developed. But the chief problem here is the conceit of having more than one actor portray the nefarious Edward Hyde, often at the same time.

The show’s program explains: “Doesn’t it make sense, then, that sometimes Jekyll would swallow the tincture and come up with a vile version of Hyde, and other times he would swallow it and come up with a silky one, or a more seductive version, or a more pathetic one?”

Depicting the many faces of evil literally with many different faces is an interesting idea in theory, but in Bristol’s production it’s undercut by execution. If under Baker’s direction the actors all play Hyde in exactly the same manner—shoulders hunched, knees bent, teeth bared, expressions frozen in a menacing grimace—why bother? And it’s not just that it’s confusing or poorly done; at the core, it belies the point of Stevenson’s story, which examines the split between good and evil in a single mind.

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s original, Dr. Jekyll says that as Hyde he felt “younger, lighter, happier in body,” with “an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul.”

But at Bristol, the strikingly similar portrayals of Hyde are of a melodramatic, sinister villain with a demented sneer and shifty eyes. Only Sharon gives us some of the original freedom of the persona, and from him we get the production’s lone chilling scene.

Bristol’s production does have its positives—some of the design elements succeed in transporting us to Victorian London. Deborah Constantine’s lighting provides some visual dazzle (backlighting the large brick wall at the rear of the stage is a nice effect), the Victorian costumes by Linda Bee Stockton are handsome and effective in establishing class and rank, William M. Neal’s foreboding sound design is strikingly creepy. Baker’s decision to place actors throughout the auditorium is also good, emphasizing the production’s theatricality. But these admirable qualities are not enough to rescue Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which ultimately fails to engage intellect or ignite imagination.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Through Oct 17.
$31-$38.
Bristol Riverside Theatre,
120 Radcliffe St.,
Bristol.
215.785.0100.
brtstage.org

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