ORLANDO — The Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” attempts two very interesting challenges — both, I think, successfully.
The first is to take a very literate script (adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, from the novella “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson) that manages to strike an intriguing balance: asking serious questions about the nature of identity, while at the same time delivering what this story has always offered — some genuinely scary moments. The production, directed by Cynthia White, could have seemed stuffy and talky — one of those “Masterpiece Theatre” imitators with hoity toity British accents — for those expecting a more Watch out! scarefest version, but thanks to a talented cast and some eerily effective lighting and sound effects, the story remains gripping even to those, like me, who know it so well.
The second unique element of the production, and one that seems to be getting mixed reviews, is White’s decision to cast one actor (Timothy Williams, who is excellent) in the role of the kindly, brilliant but emotionally overwrought scientist Dr. Jekyll, while using no fewer than four actors — including one woman — to play Jekyll’s alter-ego, Mr. Hyde. Since seeing the production, I’ve had a number of people tell me they found it confusing, watching actors Dan Bright, Simon Needham, Steven Lane and actress Anne Hering juggle multiple roles, easing out of characters both major to the plot and relatively minor, while also taking turns portraying Hyde. Some people felt it would have worked better if the Shakes had simply brought in a larger cast.
I didn’t hear this complaint until after seeing the show, but I found the casting decisions more compelling than confusing once I realized that’s what they were doing. For example, Bright makes the earliest appearance as Hyde, and I assumed he would handle the role, but the others switch in and out of the character. Most of the time, Lane takes on the role, and he’s particularly good at capturing Hyde’s malevolent nature, as he lurks behind unsuspecting victims, his wooden cane held tightly in his hand, the object of punishment for those who set him off.
The multiple casting worked, I think, because of the play’s interesting concepts about the very fragile nature of identity — a concept that becomes as chilling as any of Hyde’s vicious attacks. The use of four actors to play Hyde becomes symbolic of the deep split in Jekyll’s tortured persona.
Stevenson’s story, which was based on a dream (or nightmare, perhaps?) that he had, has been remarkably enduring since it was first published back in 1886, and why not? Who can’t relate to the notion of suppressing your darkest impulses because the moral values of society have taught you to do that?
Dr. Henry Jekyll, of course, is a highly esteemed scientist and physician, who lives in a mansion in Victorian London, and is considered to be one of the most respected men in the city. He’s also increasingly frustrated with his bland, safe, and dull existence, and begins experimenting with potions that can alter personalities. His goal is to separate the “bad” — impulses toward violence, anger, a complete disregard for social norms, the desire for drink and drugs — from the “good,” and it works — only not in the way he had anticipated. Rather than ridding himself of his “bad” impulses, the potion transforms Jekyll into every dark desire within him, in the form of Hyde.
At first, it allows the kindly doctor to live out and explore his wildest fantasies, but in an entirely different body, so no one will ever suspect that Jekyll himself has done anything wrong. But Hyde embodies everything society disapproves of — including no moral restraints on how he treats women, children, men weaker than him. Jekyll’s inner bestial nature, once released, turns out to be more than he bargained for.
The story can be viewed as a metaphor for substance abuse, serious drug addiction, schizophrenia, or even what happens when values start being abandoned and the individual has no social restraints at all. As Hyde’s rampages get worse, Dr. Jekyll looks bewildered over how to respond. Several times he is found close to the scene of one of Hyde’s crimes, and is quick to tell the authorities that Hyde is the man responsible, even telling them where Hyde lives — knowing that now, back in the form of Dr. Jekyll, his alternate personality is nowhere to be found.
At the same time, the play explores some fascinating questions about just how fragile our sense of self is. What created Hyde is what was inside Jekyll all along. His struggle to confront that, especially in the play’s second act, offers “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” some of its best scenes.
The entire cast does a marvelous job taking on the challenge of creating so many different characters, while Gemma Victorian Walden as Elizabeth, the beautiful young woman that both Jekyll and Hyde are attracted to, and Williams are wonderful in their singular roles. This is a fine Halloween season production, suitably chilling in parts, but also an intelligent handing of a classic and well-worn story.
“Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” will be performed through Nov. 13 in the Goldman Theater at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St. in Loch Haven Park. Shows begin at 7:30 p.m., and the production runs just under two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
To learn more, call the box office at 407-447-1700.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..