October’s a great month to mix a little bit of spooky in with your art. In our area, it seems as if there’s a real shortage of scary fun in our theaters this Halloween. With that in mind, I was greatly looking forward to Jeffery Hatcher’s new adaptation of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” playing at Bristol Riverside Theater through Sunday, October 17. Robert Lewis Stevenson’s classic is renowned for its ghoulish thrills and insight into the duality of man, set amidst the backdrop of foggy, gas-lit London. I was ready for a Friday-night fright and a good time; however, I got something altogether different from what I was expecting. And I’m still trying to decide if that’s a good or bad thing.
We all know the plot of the novel: Dr. Jekyll’s a physician who creates a potion designed to eliminate a person’s evil impulses and uses himself as a guinea pig. The result is a series of transformations into the monstrous, abusive, and destructive Mr. Hyde, who wreaks havoc on Jekyll’s life and ultimately destroys him. That’s the basics of the story, and, upon entering the theater, it looked as though that’s exactly what I was about to get — fog hangs heavy over the audience with a red door ominously suspended in mid-air. As pre-show atmospheres go, it’s hard to beat.
The swerve in this production comes in the conceits of its telling. Henry Jekyll (Michael Sharon) is flanked by four actors who handle the bulk of the other roles throughout the production, each of whom transforms and transitions ably under Keith Baker’s precise direction. The big twist, however, is that Hyde is played, in turn, by each of these four actors, signified by a top hat and cane passed off to the actor as he or she takes on the role of the monster. It’s a neat idea and an intriguing point of exploration, which allows for 1) Hyde to have a completely different physicality from Jekyll and 2) for Jekyll and Hyde to have several fun sparring matches throughout. It sort of falls apart, though, in that there’s not really a discernable reason why each actor plays Hyde when; it seems mostly built around who’s available to take on the beast given the casting requirements of the scene at hand. I will say that I actively enjoyed the variance of portrayals of Hyde, especially Robert Ian McKenzie’s growling, romantic take.
The other challenge of this production comes in its exposition-heavy first act and brisk, action-packed conclusion. There’s a lot to chew on as we head towards intermission, and it’s easy to get lost or detached at points. The lighting design by Deborah Constantine is frankly amazing throughout, with an eye towards creating an understated mood and a sudden, devious willingness to show off in moments of spectacular, devilish showmanship. If you’re going in looking for jumps and gasps and scares, this is the element of the production that best scratches that itch. There’s also a creepy, hyper-realistic corpse used in a classroom scene that is wonderfully squirm-inducing. There’s nothing about this production, though, that’s frightening or foreboding. It’s a very cerebral and sort of heartbreaking look into one man trying to be two (more on that later), but it’s not the macabre spectacle I was anticipating.
Then again, that misapprehension may have been my fault; it’s important to enter the theater with no expectations or preconceptions so that you can appreciate the production for the merits of what it is and what it’s trying to say. Hatcher has chosen to add one vital new section to the story, revolving around the character of Elizabeth (Eileen Ward). Hyde’s attraction to her is interesting and of course not new — that the “evil” Edward Hyde has a soft spot is something that’s been explored before. The cool bit with this love story is that it becomes a bit of a triangle as Jekyll’s feelings for her, amorphous and harder to place, come to the forefront. As the action ramps up as we enter the second act, Jekyll and Hyde’s dual affections for Elizabeth become the fulcrum by which the line between Jekyll and Hyde is blurred, and a twist moment right before the ending (not spoiling it here) incites a frankly brilliant question about the nature of good and evil in this play: Did Jekyll want to simply eliminate evil and become “good,” or did he want a second persona who he could blame for his own wicked impulses?
Perhaps better than any adaptation I’ve seen of this story thus far, BRT’s production really plays with the idea that “good” and “evil” are relative, and the separations of those aspects in one man don’t quite divide out the way you might think.
All in all, I really enjoyed BRT’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” It’s not the terrifying frightfest you might expect, but it is an engrossing, twisty look at one man’s divided psyche, with some innovative and fun ways of incorporating stagecraft in illustrating that divide.
"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Through Sunday, October 17. Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of lust, love, and horror adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher. $34 to $42. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.