When you’re staging Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you probably don’t want the folks in the seats to perk up only when Mr. Hyde is breaking someone’s neck.
On one level, that sentiment may seem counterintuitive. After all, few viewers went to Hulk to see Dr. Banner; they went to see his unchained alter ego. But in a theatrical production, you’d like to think the audience is there not just for eye-popping computer effects. If they’re going to stay engaged, they’ve got to stay engaged in their heads.
For about half the running time of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it’s a satisfying piece of theater. You simply have to sit through a whole lot of expository sluggishness to get to it—and wind up rooting for the appearances of the bad guy.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s story is adapted here by playwright David Edgar, bringing us to Victorian England and the tale of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Kurt Rhoads). Upon retrieving the notes of his late father, Jekyll begins experimentation into the duality of human nature—whether we have a “base” part and a “higher” part. And it should come as a shock to no one that his experiments bear fruit. Soon, a formula is transforming Jekyll into the appetite-driven Mr. Edward Hyde, and unpleasantness ensues.
Granted, it takes quite awhile to ensue. Most of Jekyll & Hyde’s first act is devoted to setting up Jekyll’s various key relationships—with his widowed sister Katherine (Pilar Witherspoon), with his best friends Utterson (Stephen Temperley) and Dr. Lanyon (Ian Stuart), with his housemaid Annie (Emma Bowers). And a talky first act it is, though far too little of the talk gets at the demons that drive Jekyll to his dabbling with nature. Even the set design by Peter Harrison feels simple and expository, with a rotating centerpiece that blatantly color-codes the Jekyll-Hyde split: red in Jekyll’s drawing room for a civilized, restrained “stop,” green in his laboratory for an id-run-wild “go.”
Only after the intermission does the show gain momentum, mostly by showcasing Rhoads’ impressively creepy physical performance. At times, it appears that he is signaling his switch between Jekyll and Hyde through the use of false teeth; other transformations seem to offer no opportunity for applying prosthetics, making the change a pure work of facial expression and altered posture.
It’s a sharp piece of work, yet Rhoads’ ability to slide between the two roles may only accentuate the fact that Jekyll himself isn’t particularly interesting as a character. There should be more of a tragic dimension to Jekyll’s inability to accept the dark and the light within him. Instead, playwright Edgar plays up the doctor’s childhood issues, reducing the complex psychology to a guy whose daddy didn’t love him enough. The text does toy with some provocative of-the-moment ideas when the post-Hyde Dr. Jekyll turns into a vocal spokesman for moral rectitude, suggesting that such crusading emerges from fear of one’s own dark side. “How could you be me? Look at what I am,” Jekyll says to his reflection, and for a moment the play has something to say about the profound denial of primal human urges. It’s the most interesting notion this Jekyll & Hyde has going for it, and it vanishes almost as quickly as it’s introduced.
Director Geoffrey Sherman makes the most of staging the show’s edgiest moments—including a train ride shared by Dr. Jekyll and a country parson—and elicits solid performances form his entire cast. But this Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde doesn’t offer enough thought-provoking material or gripping stagecraft until the subject matter moves into the macabre. The inner beast is too familiar an icon of horror to make an audience wait this long before it finally emerges.
DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE, Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East, Oct. 29-Nov15, 581-6961