A Strollers Theatre production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, at the Bartell Theatre through Nov. 20, features four actors in the role of the brutish and id-driven Mr. Hyde. This departure by writer Jeffrey Hatcher allows us to see more dimensions of Hyde, but it is sometimes tricky to sort out. It makes for an interesting play, but a sometimes confounding one, especially when the four are playing other roles in the production.
Robert Louis Stevenson's novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has thoroughly permeated our consciousness, inspiring movies, plays, a musical and even a theme restaurant. The expression Jekyll and Hyde is shorthand for unpredictable mood swings, or for the inner tension between good and evil.
Stevenson's work has even gotten the Looney Tunes treatment, so I probably don't have to spend much time unspooling the plot, but here are the CliffsNotes: In Victorian England a well-respected doctor, fascinated by the duality of human nature, experiments on himself in his laboratory, drinking a potion that turns him into the cruel and barbaric Mr. Hyde. Brutality and violence ensue.
Joshua Paffel, who plays Dr. Henry Jekyll in Strollers' production, doesn't get his big transformation scene until the end. That means he is able to focus entirely on Jekyll's personality. Even so, hints of Hyde-like behavior emerge, including fits of professional jealousy and false bravado. He accompanies these with a small tilt of the head or an awkward hand gesture. We see Jekyll's conflict with his dark side -- the fascination, then repulsion. Paffel is able to conjure some sympathy, particularly when he mistakenly believes he has Hyde under control and is calling the shots.
As the first Hyde we see, Al Hart relishes in injuring a young child on the street. Later, Matthew Korda takes the helm. While a fine Hyde, Korda is better in a series of other small roles, especially as Sir Danvers Carew (Jekyll's workplace nemesis) and an amusing police inspector.
Tim Irvin plays Hyde as a sexy beast and is perhaps the most volatile of the quartet. I was a little distracted by his makeup, which seemed a few shades too light, giving him a ghoulish visage that may or may not have been intentional.
Irvin's Hyde, though unpredictable and brash, attracts the affections of the lovely Elizabeth, sister of the child the first Hyde attacked. Molly Shulman as Elizabeth has the expressive, saucer eyes of a young Helena Bonham Carter, and brings an appealing quality to a role that could easily slip into trite territory. Sarah Luedtke is the fourth Hyde, and she is quick with a leering, salacious grin.
At times I struggled to sort out who was who. There is understandably a lot of business with thresholds and transformations, but the constant moving around and the spinning of a large door become tedious. Director Tony Trout uses the multiple Hydes best when an evening of Hyde's debauchery and violence is recounted, after Jekyll has placed a private detective on Hyde's tail. The Hydes and extras smoothly perform what is essentially a well-choreographed dance. It is mesmerizing and too brief.
Thanks to set designer Erin S. Baal's handsome work and Karen Tusack's nicely crafted costumes, the production values seem richer than at some Bartell shows.
Trout has shaped a work that is indeed creepy and particularly fun for Halloween weekend. The creepy vibe continues through the suitably morbid and morose curtain call.