It is London, 1883. A maze of cobblestone streets is lit with gas lamps, and narrow alleyways are covered in dreary mist. A series of events is unfolding or about to unfold in the dark underbelly of the city.
Welcome to the Arboretum and this season's second production at SummerFest: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jeffrey Hatcher's sophisticated adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's famous novella.
In Hatcher's version, Dr. Jekyll creates a tincture to allow him to explore a hidden aspect of himself, a medical experiment with hallucinogenics that gives birth to a dark and twisted alter ego, Mr. Edward Hyde.
Directed by Patti Heying, this innovative production puts a psychologically complex spin on the familiar tale, artistically emphasizing that we can all be our own worst enemies. Drawing on some of the area's best talent, the result is a darkly entertaining tale with a haunting message.
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A small, top-notch cast gives this outdoor fare a more intimate feel than SummerFest's usual offerings. Eight actors portray the show's two dozen or so characters, seamlessly shifting from one to another. Four play various incarnations of Hyde.
For instance, Susan Wigglesworth appears as Jekyll's faithful servant Poole one moment, but then a shift in voice and demeanor indicates she is now Hyde. Similarly, Adam Luckey trades a thick Scottish accent as Jekyll's friend Dr. H.K. Lanyon for a London accent and fiendish presence in his portrayal of Hyde.
At times, all versions of Hyde appear together, each interacting differently with Jekyll, each representing a differently nuanced aspect of Hyde.
Though Jekyll has no memory of his transformations into Hyde, he is nonetheless colored by Hyde in his waking life, a challenge for any actor to cultivate. Bob Singleton is more than up to the task. His performance humanizes Jekyll, stealthily allowing bits of Hyde to penetrate his psyche until the two become nearly indistinguishable.
The only other actor with a single role is Kim Dixon, as chambermaid Elizabeth. Unlike the other characters, Elizabeth remains steady and undivided in her love for Hyde. She is perhaps love itself — constant, brave, but irrational. She continues to search for Hyde well after Jekyll has stopped drinking the transforming tincture. She is not phased to discover Hyde is a murderer, continuing to love him at her own risk.
Heying's use of four actors to portray Hyde is a creative risk that, for the most part, pays off. Fluid and unexpected shifts in character emphasize that anyone, not just Jekyll, has the capacity for other, darker versions of the self. Occasionally, the multiple Hydes can feel excessive, such as when they are all speaking at once.
The fact that Jekyll can physically confront and interact with Hyde is the most novel and rewarding aspect of the show. We get to see, literally, a man's inner conflict played out on stage. Rather than forming a clear delineation of good and evil, Jekyll and Hyde are different blends of both at different times. In other words, their characters are separate but related.
The ensemble cast deserves praise for its tight staging and complex mastery of emotional truths. What's more, the large size of the stage and Arboretum audience space means they have to play intimacy "big." I sat toward the very back of the seating area and was able to discern, if not the actors' facial expressions, their characters' actions and intentions.
They also deserve kudos for developing distinctly different British accents, each representative of the character's station in life. The only time these accents waiver in consistency is in a few emotionally charged scenes.
Another highlight of this show is Kay Lea Meyer's scenic design; many shapes and sizes of doors form the back wall of the stage, hinting at the cramped inner city. A couple of these differently shaped and sized doors are functional and used inventively to suggest location changes and a sense of forward movement in the plot.
A refreshing departure from SummerFest's usual fare, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an innovative, well-wrought, highly entertaining exploration of the human psyche.