It’s long been a part of the language: “a Jekyll and Hyde personality.” We don’t have to have read the 1886 novella to get the drift. According to what Robert Louis Stevenson explained about his invention, the initial idea came to him in a dream, although it has long been speculated to have been inspired by the savage Jack-the-Ripper murders that took place at the same time. An ordinary good man could have a cruel, evil double.
In any case, the story used to look like one of the prime models of Victorian horror. Ah, says contemporary playwright Jeffrey Hatcher in his adaptation of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, if only the question of good and evil were so simple. The Hatcher interpretation is currently being mounted by Appleseed Productions at the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave.
Still in his early 40s, Hatcher may not yet be a household name but he has connected well with local audiences each time his work appears. In 2003 Le Moyne College staged his hilarious Crash, adapting an early George Bernard Shaw novel to produce a stage work equal to the master. Bill Molesky and Shannon Tompkins’ both won honors from the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Awards for their appearances in Hatcher’s A Picasso in 2007. And last year veteran Rosemary Palladino Leone gave one of her best performances ever in Hatcher’s Three Viewings, a comedy set in a funeral parlor. To say nothing of the words Hatcher put in Keira Knightley’s lovely celluloid lips in The Duchess (2008).
Hatcher’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, which opened in Phoenix early last year, makes Stevenson’s view look almost comforting. Instead of being a “deconstruction,” that modish concept, it retells the story in period costume and reflects the wider experience we have had with evil in the past 123 years. Not only the Holocaust and the slaughter of the Tutsis, but the legions of “willing executioners,” bland-looking ordinary people who play along, committing silent heinous deeds with impunity. So the vicious Mr. Hyde doesn’t just pop up after the quaffing of a magic formula, he’s everywhere.
At the beginning of the action, some familiar names and themes make us feel we’re embarking on a well-worn journey. Dr. Henry Jekyll (Jim Uva) is an intellectually ambitious young progressive doctor and scientist, befriended by the reliable Gabriel Utterson (Alan D. Stillman), but running into trouble with a tiresome reactionary, Sir Danvers Carew (David B. Vickers). In an uproarious masterpiece of political incorrectness, Sir Danvers examines the corpse of a sex crime victim (an unnamed, apparently live, undressed lady, not named in the program) and pronounces her—and her smaller brain—responsible for her own death
In most versions of the story, including Frank Wildhorn’s widely produced musical, an initial complication arises when Dr. Jekyll becomes involved with Carew’s beautiful and virtuous daughter, who goes under different names in different productions, such as Muriel or Emma. Hatcher prudently sees this creature as a Victorian twit and leaves her out of the script. The naughtier girls, under different names, will appear later.
Before we get further into the action, we see that Hatcher has several other tricks to share with us. Very much a friend to actors, the playwright wants to enlarge their work and give them more ways to delight us than simply having them shout “Boo!’ in the dark. The device is not only economical (fewer actors equals less cost), it expands upon what Hatcher seems to be telling us about Stevenson’s original notion. Just as a single body can have more than one identity, so a single performer can present us with a succession of identities.
Nowhere does the device work better than in the casting of diminutive (4-foot-11) Indian-American actress Binaifer Dabu. When we first see her she’s a crying child with a shawl over her head. A few minutes later she’s transmogrified into a man (shades of Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously!). First it’s the servant Poole, a character that appears in Stevenson’s novella, although usually as a stolid Brit. Here, dressed in a dark morning coat and trousers, Poole also sports a white turban and speaks with a muted Indian accent. More men and more women and possibly a hermaphrodite will follow.
Having dumped the good girl, Hatcher still needs the bad girls, although they do not bear names of the tarts of earlier dramatizations, Ivy or Lucy, as she is in the Wildhorn musical. The prime baddie, Elizabeth Jelkes (Christiana Molldrem), is somewhat elastic. An otherwise innocent woman, Margaret Mary Walsh (Jennifer DeCook) speaks for moral ambiguity, unsure whether to choose her good side, identifying with the suffering of victims, or opting for the bad, and relishing the voyeurism of seeing what crime has wrought.
As in previous stagings of the Jekyll-Hyde story, much of the dialogue is both scientific and metaphysical, in which the good doctor consults with his colleagues, in this case the burly Richard Enfield (John Brackett) and the bearded, Scottish-accented Dr. H.K. Lanyon (Daniel Rowlands). What Hatcher wants us to see is that these men also have more than one face to show the world.
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde comes to us under the guidance of William Edward White, always Appleseed Productions’ most adventuresome director, the man who also brought us Capek’s R.U.R. He is given a huge assist from Navroz N. Dabu’s gothic set with mobile door. The entire stage reeks with the menacing gloom of James Whale-level creepiness from the 1930s Universal horror movies, a real accomplishment in a church basement theater. The necessary transformations into Mr. Hyde, which cannot be fully discussed, work well but one is a feat of legerdemain worthy of its own ovation. Terry LaCasse’s staging of the fight scenes also deserve high praise. White’s music also succeeds in building atmosphere, but it’s a mistake to take items sure to be familiar to casual classical music buffs.
This is Appleseed’s Halloween gift to the community. It’s a show where things go bump in the night, more than you bargained for.
This production runs through Nov. 7. See Times Table for information.