The Half of It

Salerno's new Jekyll & Hyde fails to illuminate

For centuries writers have been making human duality their subject. It's there, for example, in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, when a famously upright Lord Angelo is transformed by the sight of a beautiful nun-in-training into a would-be rapist and murderer.

It's present again in Joseph Conrad's renowned story Heart of Darkness, when the figure of Kurtz, introduced to us as "an emissary of pity and science and progress" and "an exceptional man," turns out to have become a savage king of savages, who has "taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land."

Victor Hugo wrote a poem in which he envisaged a human being as an angel wrestling with an ape. And possibly the most chilling presentation of the criminal side of the human animal comes in Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, when a patient from the insane asylum of Charenton suddenly separates himself from the crowd and exclaims, "A mad animal/ Man's a mad animal/ I'm a thousand years old and in my time/ I've helped commit a million murders ... Prisons don't help/ Chains don't help/ I escape/ through all the walls/ through all the shit and the splintered bones/ You'll see it all one day/ I'm not through yet/ I have plans."

After the experience of two bloody world wars and untold atrocities from Phnom Penh to Rwanda, it's hard to believe that this outburst isn't relevant. For all humankind's potential goodness, we're also somehow a "mad animal."

Of course, one of the most famous expressions of this self-knowledge is Robert Louis Stevenson's novel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Here we have the problem of duality made simple: good Dr. Jekyll, when in the power of a chemical potion, turns into the murderous Mr. Hyde, scourge of the London streets.

The novel is particularly interesting for having been written in the Victorian Age (1886), when it looked to many observers as if civilization and decency had won the battle for human souls. Stevenson knew better; even before Freud, he understood the dreadful lusts of the unconscious, that they never quite disappear, that they can be suppressed but not banished.

And in our own time, as we remember the not-so-distant deeds of human madmen, it would seem that Jekyll and Hyde is the perfect candidate for dramatic revival. After Auschwitz and Kosovo, as the dreadful news still arrives from Darfur, what text could be more pertinent?

Unfortunately, pertinence isn't what comes to mind when the play is Jekyll & Hyde, with book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, music by Frank Wildhorn. In the Salerno Theatre Company production currently playing in Ybor City, this is a tedious, simplistic presentation that only gains momentum in the second act, and which doesn't have a thing to tell us about our potential for good or ill.

As for the music, it seems to come from the same computer that Andrew Lloyd Webber uses in his musicals, and the singing, like the acting, is uneven and only occasionally stirring. There are a few fine elements in the production - the acting of the lead, the crooning of the two main females, and the costume design; but overall this is a disappointing experience that fails to provoke a single thought about our troubled nature.

It's true that the Salerno troupe is still young, and like many new companies still has wrinkles to iron out. But there are moments in Jekyll & Hyde that resemble nothing so much as a community theater production, staffed with earnest amateurs. It will take more careful casting and more imaginative direction to convince us of Salerno's value to the Bay area.

The tale Jekyll & Hyde tells is a somewhat altered version of the Stevenson original. In the musical, Jekyll is obsessed with the half-good half-evil nature of the human animal, and devoted to finding a way to divide the two sides, leaving only the good. He appeals to the Board of Governors of a hospital for the right to experiment; his petition is denied.

He goes to a brothel, still in search of a guinea pig, but doesn't meet one. Finally, he decides to experiment on himself; and the result is not two half-men but one single Mr. Hyde - angry, vicious, murderous and smug. He terrorizes London and confuses his friend John Utterson and his consort Lucy Harris (the prostitute with a - you guessed it - heart of gold).

Finally, Jekyll loses his ability to control the transformations, and his marriage to the lovely Emma Carew is threatened. At the end, unable to stop Mr. Hyde from breaking through, he finds a definitive solution to his duality.

Of course, the first question that a director has to answer is how to distinguish Jekyll from Hyde (in the story, Hyde is exceedingly ugly). The answer here, I'm sorry to say, is that little such distinction is made: One undisguised actor plays Hyde and Jekyll, and we have to wonder why everyone who knows the two fails to notice the resemblance.

Happily, Michael Mathews plays both roles with a certain charisma, so we're willing to overlook this bit of nonsense as the play progresses. And Mathews' singing is good enough to satisfy, as are the voices of Catherine Ernst as Emma and Amanda Bernstein as Lucy.

But few of the other voices are of professional quality, and the acting in case after case - excepting again the leads - is less than stellar. Michael Buck as John Utterson seems stiff and uncomfortable; Diana Anton as Lady Beaconsfield is one-dimensional; Jim Crowder as Lucy's pimp seems to have no personality, etc., etc.

Jorge Acosta's direction is as dual as Henry Jekyll - at some moments, especially those involving tender emotions, he easily wins our credulity, while at others, especially when crowds are onstage, the pageant couldn't be less believable.

Kenny Prater's set of a stone bridge and staircase in the background, empty space in the foreground, looks like something you might find in a high school auditorium, but Venetia's costumes are usually attractive. Sam Froeschle's lighting can do nothing to make us believe we're having a first-class experience.

But even if the acting and singing were consistent, Jekyll & Hyde would still fall short. Here in the 21st century, just a few years since 9/11 and other outrages, we know too much about the barbarous side of human beings. From this standpoint, then, Jekyll & Hyde is too tame. A play like Marat/Sade seems closer to the truth: There are mad animals everywhere, more than enough to fill all the asylums of London and Paris and every other city. And don't forget, "I'm not through yet/ I have plans."

Maybe human personality is a battle between angel and ape, after all. In which case, it's not quite clear who's winning.

And Wildhorn and Bricuse's Mr. Hyde doesn't know the half of it.

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