Hyde and Psych

21. October, 2010 Theater No comments


Show #107: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Town Hall Theatre Company, October 17.

Ryan O’Donnell, Ginny Wehrmeister and Chris Hayes in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Photo by Stu Selland.


By Sam Hurwitt

Everyone knows the gist of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, whether or not they’ve actually read Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella: Trying to distill the dark side of humanity from its higher impulses, a mild-mannered doctor creates a potion that turns him into a monstrous, distorted murderer. But odds are that however they first encountered the story it was greatly embellished, because the original is a rather slow-paced mystery in which a lawyer tries to piece together what hold this scoundrel Edward Hyde has over his respectable friend Henry Jekyll that made the doctor make the rogue the beneficiary in his will.

The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, onstage at Lafayette’s Town Hall Theatre is in some ways more faithful than most, in the sense that it makes the lawyer Gabriel Utterson its primary narrator, and a significant departure from the original story. Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation first came to the Bay Area in 2008 in its world premiere production at San Jose Repertory Company, straight from Arizona Theatre Company where it had debuted first.

Hatcher’s play is more a response to Stevenson than a straight adaptation. One of his characters refutes Jekyll’s premise that there are only two sides to human nature, and Hatcher illustrates this by showing not one but many Hydes. Unlike most adaptations where the same actor plays Jekyll and Hyde, in this play every actor portrays Hyde except the ones playing Jekyll and the chambermaid he bedevils, Elizabeth Jelkes.

There are no female characters of any significance in the original story, just a young girl Hyde tramples in the street and a maid who witnesses a murder, but the 1931 movie starring Frederic March and 1941 remake with Spencer Tracy added a fiancée for Jekyll and a prostitute whom Hyde takes prisoner. Elizabeth seems based somewhat on the latter character as a romantic interest for Hyde, but she’s really original to this adaptation. This time she’s the sister of the trampled girl, and far from wanting to flee Hyde, she’s drawn to him.

Ginny Wehrmeister proves a highlight of this production as the forthright Elizabeth, neither jaded not naïve. There’s a real electricity to the way she reacts to the menacing Hyde, unafraid and subtly turned on, and her piercing scream is marvelous. Ryan O’Donnell just seems weary and a bit constipated as Jekyll, with a marked listlessness even when he’s on the verge of violence.

As for the Hydes, Chris Parnell-Hayes is mostly limp as pompous rival doctor Sir Danvers Carew, a private eye and a lackadaisical police detective, so much so that when one character is investigating the other’s death it takes a while to figure out which he’s supposed to be. Kathryn Zdan does a workmanlike job with Jekyll’s butler Poole, a surly rooming house porter, and the maid who witnessed the murder. Phil Ristaino is mousy and restrained to a fault as Jekyll’s colleague Dr. Lanyon, who’s supposed to be Scottish but has an indistinct Austrian-Welsh-Yiddish accent. When he witnesses Jekyll’s unbelievable transformation, he scarcely reacts, as if his colleague had used his salad fork for his entrée.

A mustachioed Dennis Markham is more animated as Utterson, with a debonair twinkle in his eye even when expressing concern, even if he seems a little more like a friendly constable than a lawyer. It’s not quite clear why the private eye character is even in the play, because in the very next scene we find out that Utterson has been doing the same work of tailing Hyde on his own initiative.

There are many effective visual moments in artistic director Clive Worsley’s staging—as when people walk through a door and it spins around to have them walking back out, now inside a room. But the everyday blocking within scenes is uninspired, with a lot of people standing around, arms hanging limp at their sides.

Costumer Bessie Delucchi does a fine job on a fetching bustled dress for Elizabeth and a lot of long black coats, and Chris Hayes’s gloomy set is striking, with big slab walls, a tall bookshelf, and an imposing red door. Chris Guptill’s shadowy lighting turns bright red for the occasional scenes of violence, and Nico Brenni’s sound is drenched in dramatic sawing cellos and a thumping heartbeat.

For all Hatcher’s emphasis on the many sides to human nature, which the Hydes would seem to symbolize, the Hydes aren’t markedly different from each other and don’t seem to embody particular traits. They’re just a whole bunch of Hydes. Part of the problem is performance, because they’re also not distinguished enough from the other characters that the individual actors play for them to really take on a life of their own, and at first it’s almost confusing: “Wait, that other guy is Hyde? Huh, I guess Jekyll’s innocent after all.” They’re more effective when they descend in a cluster than they are individually.

Some key moments in the original story are shown here without particular emphasis, as when Jekyll first transforms into Hyde against his will, without taking the potion. Ultimately what’s most interesting in Hatcher’s interpretation is not the way he conveys the original text but the ways in which he works against it, such as the implication that it’s Jekyll who’s the real monster, as Hyde shows some noble instincts and the good doctor displays violent ones. It’s far from the most dynamic take on Stevenson’s story, but it’s interesting as an alternate take, a later age of pop psychology’s response to the Victorian monster yarn.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde plays through October 31 at Town Hall Theatre, 3535 School St., Lafayette. http://townhalltheatre.com

The San Francisco Symphony is screening the 1920 silent film of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring John Barrymore with live accompaniment on October 31.

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