Monday, April 27, 2009

I was wary of contemporary theater after a man stripped down to a giant bird costume last season, smashing a reasonable play into postmodern oblivion -- but I was willing to risk it for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (I don't really know what postmodern means in theater terms, but I'm going to hope it applies here because I like how it sounds.)

I love the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I remember reading the book jacket when I was a kid, and couldn't believe that this was an old story, that something so scandalous and so true-feeling was written by some olde timey guy with an enormous mustache. I'm not sure if actually read the book or not, any more than I remember my stacks of Nancy Drew and Baby-Sitters Club. But I was smitten with the story, and if I never saw more than a mid-90s film version, I was still a devotee of the idea that the meek and mild-mannered might be terrorists in their off hours.

The ACT production added a more substantial female character (none in the book) and Mr. Hyde was played by all the other actors in turn. The latter is the interpretive detail that made me hesitate, but the execution was seamless and effective. It's hard now to imagine the same Mr. Hyde as acted by one actor, or even by the same actor as played Dr Jekyll.

I don't know that Hyde really seemed more multifaceted because of the multiple actors varying portrayals -- one good actor could have accomplished this. What if did give was a disjointed, loopy feeling you might expect from opium-induced schizophrenia, and which highlighted the muddled nature of the story's moral message. It was all very clean on the surface, spare set and costumes, clear articulate dialogue, but very mixed-up when you had to follow Hyde's actions and thoughts. The character was elusive, beyond human.

Dr. Jekyll could have been simplistic in comparison, a one-dimensional goody-two-shoes foil for the complexity of our darker desires, etc. But the actor was appealingly awkward at times, convincingly desperate, and increasingly morally ambiguous. He may be The Good One, but he's incredibly flawed. His face was somehow perfect for the role, kinda young and weak and English-looking.

I love it, but I don't personally relate to the story like I did as a kid. I wanted to wreak havoc, to have immense, unsuspected power over people, didn't want to be pigeonholed as a well-behaved Jekyll unless it meant my hidden deviousness was that much more poignant. The story represented possibilities of adventure. Now, it is much more frightening to think that I might unwillingly harbor instincts toward evil; that the Hyde in us is not manifested through voluntary trouble-making but through unintentional malicious actions. I didn't get this when I was a kid -- that the story was about uncontrolled madness, not bad behavior. It's this that makes the story frightening.

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