Review: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (Idle Muse Theatre Company)

Gary Barth and Julie Cowden.
Gary Barth and Julie Cowden.

Show: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Company: Idle Muse Theatre Company

Venue: Rivendell Theatre

Die Roll: 7

At the center of Jeffrey Hatcher’s rendition of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” sits an an argument about good and evil.  The primary tradition surrounding this classic tale is that Dr. Jekyll is a respectable gentleman whose experimentations with dubious science have led to his evil side reigning freely over him at times, making him into a completely different man/creature.  Director Nathan Pease and his cast show that there are many sides to a story, and sometimes the good isn’t necessarily where we expect it to lie.

In his endeavor to show the multi-faceted relationship of Hyde and Jekyll, Hatcher wrote a play that calls upon a company to cast four actors in the role of Hyde.  There is a convention built into the show that also calls for whomever is playing Hyde at that moment will be equipped with a cane that transfers from one actor to the next.  A hat and cloak are also used to indicate when someone is Hyde rather than whomever they play the rest of the time.

Before I go any further, I suppose I should make sure we’re all on the same page as to what the tale of Jekyll and Hyde entails.  I, not unlike many others, have never read the novella written by Robert Louis Stevenson.  Instead, my knowledge of the story has been culled from the land of popular culture.  The Broadway musical is on my radar.  So are a couple of film versions of the story.  A personal favorite is the Looney Tunes version of the story.  But, the original source material is something that I’ve never looked at.  So, I cannot speak to how closely this adaptation rings true to the original.  But, as to the general plot, I can explain thus: Dr. Jekyll sees himself as a bit of a moralist.  He also dabbles in the art of mystical potion making.  He administers his draughts to himself, and when he does so, he turns into the wholly amoral Mr. Hyde.  As Hyde, Jekyll commits terrible acts of violence.  He also acts on his primal lust in pursuing an affair with Elizabeth.  In the end, Jekyll ends up dead at the hands of his own dark side.

So… As far as telling this tale, the play does a terrific job.  Jekyll (played by Gary Barth) is a bit of a self-righteous moralizer, who is also a bit of a hypocrite.  His upper class associates take him in stride and respect him for his medical knowledge and gentlemanly ways.  But there is more.  Barth effectively shows a man who is of two minds about himself.  From the get-go he’s in the middle of an identity crisis.

Now, you might think that having Hyde played by four individuals would show a multi-faceted aspect to the proposed villain of the tale, but the character actually remains consistent no matter whose body he inhabits at the time.  David Guy brings a scary intensity to his portrayal of the monster-man.  Julie Cowden also takes the creepy factor up a notch as the only female to inhabit the role.

The same four actors who play Hyde also make up the rest of the ensemble.  They are all the other characters in the story, with the exception of Caty Gordon who plays Hyde’s love interest, Elizabeth.

The success of the company in bringing to life so many characters with so few actors is varied.  Vincent P Mahler stood out as one actor whose shifts from one character to another were well defined and well played.  While Guy’s Hyde was exemplary, his Gabriel Utterson spoke in an unidentifiable accent in lines that carried an air of incomprehension – a shame, as Utterson is a prime mover in the story.  Gordon’s Elizabeth was at one moment fully in the moment, and the next spoke in a rhythm that was part of the modern colloquial.

This show depended a lot on physical acting.  It started rough.  The first scene establishes that there will be movement work throughout.  But it is initially clunky and obscure.  But, it improves throughout the play.  As the actors inhabit their fluidly constructed world more fully, the world seeps into their bodies more completely.  By the time Hyde transforms into Jekyll on stage (something that only happens once during this play) near the end of the piece, the choreographed moment becomes beautiful in its complex simplicity.

I read this play a few months ago for the first time.  When I did so, I thought it was a brilliant piece of work.  What I have come to wonder based on this production is if it is a play that reads better than it performs.  From what I saw, Pease and his cast did an admirable job of faithfully bringing forth what is described in the script.  And yet something fell short of greatness here.  And while I may nitpick some performances or some other elements, none of those were enough to affect my final impression of the show.  What I came to realize was the conceit upon which the entire play is based (that is, the need to have four actors as Hyde) was misconceived.  Despite being played by four actors, Hyde was not the character who had many sides to his personality.  It is Jekyll who has sides that cannot be simplified to just himself and Hyde.  And so, while we see four people each inhabiting the role of one consistent character, we are also watching one actor inhabiting the role of one very inconsistent one.  Once this occurred to me, the four-actor-Hyde came off as nothing more than a gimmick, and one that distracted from the character.  Jekyll’s actions without Hyde are intriguingly dubious in their moral fabric.  That is the real tale told here, but in order to get to it, you must dig through the construct Hatcher has put in the way.

A side note, but perhaps an important one.  My wife attended this show with me.  She is a die-hard fan of the novella itself.  She did not like this play.  She felt it a terrible adaptation of the classic work.  As I said above, I cannot judge the quality of the adaptation myself.  However, if you are one who loves the Stevenson original, then perhaps this is not something for you.

If, however, you are looking to see something novel, such as four people being the same person, and being made to confront where evil truly lurks inside men, then this show is worth seeing.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Man reveals his evil side, also turns into Mr. Hyde.

RATING: d8- “Not Bad, Not Great”