Theater Review: freeFall's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde


In Hatcher’s take on Stevenson’s classic, not one but four actors play Hyde (Jekyll’s evil alter ego), and some of these Hydes are less brutal than others. Further, Hatcher invents a love interest for Hyde, a woman named Elizabeth Jelkes, whom the abuser finally falls for, thus making him seem several degrees less monstrous. Hatcher also takes the character Sir Danvers Carew — an innocent victim of Hyde’s motiveless malignancy in Stevenson’s story — and makes him out to be a salacious, morally wretched scientific charlatan whose murder would seem to be not entirely inappropriate.

Add to all these departures from Stevenson’s text a coda in which Jekyll and Hyde begin to take on each other’s coloration, and the result is a parable missing much of Stevenson’s force. It would seem that evil can, after all, be softened by a woman, that it exists in several shades, not all of them so terrible, and that sometimes it does what good citizens might accomplish themselves, if they weren’t so damned timid. Stevenson looked at Mr. Good Citizen and saw the heart of a Himmler. Hatcher looks at this Himmler — and sees the stirrings of a good citizen.

Still, the freeFall production is expertly presented, and what we lose in moral impact we gain in sheer theatricality. Playing the four Hydes (and many other characters besides) are Gavin Hawk, John Lombardi, Chris Jackson and Roxanne Fay. Each brings a different energy to the role, emphasizing the idea that evil is a multifarious quality. (But is goodness, conversely, unitary? What does it mean that there’s one Jekyll but four Hydes? Is that true to experience?)

The most formidable is Jackson, who is probably the most exciting young actor on Bay area stages today. His Hyde is the one who really thrills in being vicious, and who seems most capable of devising sadistic torments. Fay also communicates a dreadful depravity, and Lombardi and Hawk, if not as frightening as the two others, still suggest a credible malevolence. Lombardi excels, though, as Sir Danvers Carew, whose lascivious mind has him dissecting harlots’ corpses; and Fay is nicely eerie as Poole, Jekyll’s faithful servant.

And then there are the two actors who only play one character apiece, and who do so splendidly. Peter Robel as Henry Jekyll is very much the cultivated, dedicated man of science, committed to his experiments and so worried about his double as to set a detective on the latter’s trail. Meg Heimstead as Jelkes is a sympathetic masochist, loving her bad boy with anxious constancy, and clever enough to decipher that Hyde and Jekyll are the same man.

Eric Davis’ direction is fast-paced and amazingly precise, and the other star of the show is Steven K. Mitchell’s stunning set, featuring a wall of irregularly stacked wooden boards, and a central red door flanked by two black chairs. The original music by Alex Khaskin is felicitously portentous.

So is this Stevenson? Not really. RLS saw pure evil in the heart of humanity and didn’t at all try to mitigate it.

But this is an impressive production. And another reason to welcome freeFall to our shores.

I’ve been reading Martin Gilbert’s mammoth history of the Holocaust, and after more than 700 pages, one thing is clear: the atrocities of 1939-45 weren’t the work of just a few twisted individuals. For the widespread torture and murder of those years to have taken place, not scores but thousands of willing perpetrators were necessary, not only in Germany but everywhere from France to the Ukraine. Sure, some of the Nazis were unnaturally vicious. But they found willing and necessary accomplices in ordinary folk from all over Europe, folk who dashed out infants’ brains, buried young women alive, marched emaciated civilians to death and deliberately slaughtered the sick and the elderly.

In other words, Robert Louis Stevenson had it right in Jekyll and Hyde: at the core of the most seemingly civilized human is a monster capable of the most horrendous crimes, performed with real joy. And what this monster needs in order to show its face isn’t trauma or psychosis; what it needs is permission.

I thought about this terrible truth as I watched freeFall Theatre’s version of Stevenson’s tale at The Studio@620. This fine but curiously cerebral production offers much excellent acting, sharp direction and topnotch design, but it attenuates Stevenson’s message far too much to be really powerful. There are several reasons for this, all of them found in Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of the famous novella.

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