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Archive for April, 2012

The funny thing about the horror genre is how it serves to both comfort and discomfort. Certain “tropes” of horror—crumbling moonlit castles and graveyards, foggy cobblestone streets—now stimulate the same pleasure centers in our brain that are also tweaked by images of favorite childhood places, and are just as familiar and beloved.

On the other hand, a function of horror (as Braque once said about art) is to disturb, to strip away the comfort and safety of the familiar and leave us alone and unprotected in the company of our fears.

The remarkable thing about the production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Jeffrey Hatcher now playing at Center Stage Theater is how well it does both—-playing to our familiarity with Stevenson’s classic tale as well as the raw and disorienting fears the story can awaken.

The production opens with all the typical visual accoutrements of the era—a backdrop of the foggy London skyline, actors in top hats, bowlers, and waistcoats speaking in a variety of British accents—a deliciously rich and heavy gaslight-vibe, Steampunk-style, nicely stimulating all the appropriate genre-loving pleasure-centers of your brain.

Then, things get weird…and the weirder it gets, the more real it gets.

The most famously weird feature of Hatcher’s play—the choice of having five different Hydes played by five different actors, sometimes all onstage at once—is disorienting, but it’s a deliberate and powerfully effective disorientation that highlights the fragmented and uncontrollable nature of Jekyll’s experience. There is no one Hyde because, as the play shows us, all of Jekyll’s perceptions are tainted and cannot be trusted.

In one of the most chilling and imaginative uses of the “manifestations of Hyde”, Julia Rust, who also plays Sir Danvers Carew, the corrupt chief of surgery who Hyde has murdered, appears as a manifestation of Hyde to taunt Jekyll at the murder site. It’s a brilliant choice of direction, and Rust plays it with a kind of demonic coolness that’s all the more frightening because of its restraint. The deliberate slowness and ease with which she stalks and toys with Jekyll feels like a cat taking its time with a mouse whose blood it can already taste.

It’s been said that Jekyll and Hyde is a parable about alcoholism and drug addiction. It’s easy to see why. Hatcher’s play rings all the bells, with its discussion of alcohol and opium abuse and its frequent allusions to blackouts. Alcoholics in recovery speak of alcoholism as a “spiritual sickness” that is aggravated by alcohol but exists independently of it, which makes the process of recovery much more complicated than merely “stopping”. Jekyll “stops”—temporarily—but starts again when he decides it’s the only measure of control he has left over the unwanted changes that have started to come over him—a decision that any addict will be familiar with.

 

As Henry Jekyll, Elliot Robinson embodies a man who has so repressed and compartmentalized his own destructive urges that he can barely notice when they’ve started to break through. In the two scenes where he acts like Hyde without actually becoming Hyde (restraining Elizabeth in the hotel room, and later killing Lanyon in his laboratory), Elliot is all the more frightening by not acting like a monster, but instead showing us a man who is incapable of dropping his obsequious, civilized smile, even as he assaults a woman and strangles his friend.

Ultimately, Jekyll is a man who will not and cannot accept responsibility for his own actions. Does that make him more of a monster than Hyde? Hyde may be guilty of many horrific things (some of which we merely hear about, some of which we see onstage) but (the play seems to tell us) one thing Hyde is not is a liar.

Is it truly more monstrous to lie than to mutilate and kill human beings? Perhaps—especially if the lie is what enables those horrific crimes to occur, again and again.

In one scene, Hyde overhears Jekyll lying to the authorities about him, blaming him for things Jekyll himself has done  in order to seal his fate and be rid of Hyde forever. Tal Azevier, who plays Hyde like a man constantly trying to spit out the poison that’s eating him alive, rages at Jekyll, unheard by everyone else, calling him a liar. But the name he roars the loudest and for which he saves the most venom is ‘Actor! ‘ As if there could be nothing worse.

When Lanyon later swears to Jekyll that he’ll never tell anyone about his  secret identity and horrific crimes, Jekyll seems to react with good natured joviality, complimenting him affectionately. “Good old Lanyon. Always doing the right thing. ‘Know you like the sun…”—seconds before he strangles him to death.

And that, in the end, is probably more frightening than any bogeyman with a top hat and a cane slinking down a foggy alley—the knowledge that the friend or loved one right next to you could turn on you at any second—the fear that, without warning, we might no longer be able to recognize the people closest to us—or ourselves.

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