Arts » Theater

Hecklin' Jekyll

The Play House's Jekyll and Hyde looks great, but the script fizzles.



It's pretty clear why the concept of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde never loses its appeal. Just as soon as you think the old "innocent-fellow-with-an-evil-maniac-inside" thing has run its course, a vaguely incompetent but harmless Yale frat boy morphs into a warmongering, ozone-destroying imperialist President. Go figure.

In his original novella, Robert Louis Stevenson put his finger on one of mankind's enduring fascinations: the duality of human nature and the potential for evil that lies (usually dormant) within each of us. And now, here it comes again, in the Cleveland Play House production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, via a lifeless adaptation by David Edgar. This handsome production, rich in 19th-centuryish costumes and sets, studiously avoids the terror of the Jekyll-Hyde transformation by focusing more on the psychological aspects of the Stevenson work. This is fine for the more squeamish, but will definitely be a disappointment for others.

In the twin title role, Andrew May is blandly amenable as the kindly Dr. Jekyll, beloved by his niece and nephew, and a friend to the downtrodden. But when he drinks his father's secret Kool-Aid and turns into Mr. Hyde, all, um . . . heck breaks loose.

While the movie versions zoomed in on Jekyll's facial transformation from nice guy to Neanderthal, often to chilling effect, that isn't possible onstage. So May is left to thrash about on the floor, gagging and spitting phlegm as he enters and exits the Hyde persona. Once upright, Hyde shows us his nasty side by doing an over-the-top Richard III walk (yikes!), messily chewing a mutton chop (gasp!), and splaying himself carelessly across Jekyll's laboratory dissecting table (horrors!). This is not meant to imply that May is lacking as an actor -- only that the material and the director, Peter Hackett, force him into some rather foolish behaviors in his attempt to appear dastardly.

Just when you think the production is going to tip over into an Irma Vep kind of parody, Hyde strangles a member of Parliament and indulges in some rough grab-ass with parlormaid Annie Louder (ably portrayed by Ivy Vahanian). Finally, evil on the hoof! However, both Jekyll and Hyde are distracted in these pursuits when playwright Edgar has them read from Jekyll's journal. These recitations, added to the psychobabbling of Jekyll's eye-patch-wearing sister, make the production screech to a halt.

Instead of raw-meat horror sizzled over a raging fire, the Play House serves up a pimiento loaf wrapped in puff pastry and baked till lukewarm. Perhaps this version would play better on a thrust stage, since the proscenium arrangement of the Play House's Bolton Theatre imposes a significant physical distance between actors and audience. In any case, there are no goosebumps -- just a recognition that, yep, that sure is the story all right.

Eventually, the fragile neurological walls that keep Jekyll and Hyde apart begin to collapse, and the mutated doctor/monster chokes down a cyanide cocktail. By that point, there is so little involvement with this tepid effort that one idly wonders why he didn't just take some Zoloft.

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