BWW Reviews: Vagabond Players Transforms DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE Into a Thoroughly Modern, Thrilling Production
I don't believe I ever read Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and while it's certainly not a children's story, it's the type of classic almost-fable, featuring archetypical characters--much like Dorian Gray or Frankenstein--that permeates the imagination of youth. So I knew, more or less, what would unfold onstage at the Vagabond Players' production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But what I didn't expect was such a profound drama; such a sleek, sexy interpretation; or such a lack of camp. And while the story is firmly planted in 1883 London, the production quality is thoroughly modern.
Working with an adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher of Stevenson's 1886 novella, director John W. Ford successfully pares down what could otherwise amount to a huge production--especially given the number of scenes and characters--to the Vags' intimate space. Most striking (in fact, I heard several people around me comment about it) is the use of a door on wheels to configure and reconfigure a single set (also designed by Ford) to fit the varied scenes (both inside such places as morgues and bedrooms and outside in London's dark alleys and parks) and to aid the actors in appearing on and disappearing from stage. And the consistently dark, deep-purple lighting (by Maurice "Moe" Conn) is so deliciously ominous, it grants the production a wonderfully suspenseful ambiance.
Of note is Hatcher's use of first-person narrative, in the form of diary entries and police reports, for example, to carry the story forward and to imbue the performance with a deeply personal and intimate feel. But what truly makes the play so profound and real (as opposed to what I always considered a fantasy) is the acting. Vags veteran Greg Guyton's Jekyll is so human in his weakness and frailty, in his ego and obsession and--in the end--in his fear, that he is completely relatable, despite the central premise of a far-fetched potion that transforms one man into another. All of the actors manage to uphold their British accents beautifully, never once lapsing and therefore contributing to the credibility of their performances.
Lone actress Tiffany Spaulding, who plays five different characters but most importantly Hyde's love interest Elizabeth, does a remarkable job of infusing that critical character with both strength and vulnerability. And despite the fact that the character is crazy enough to fall in love with a psychopath, she manages to evoke sympathy from the audience. Likewise, Hyde--played in turn by four actors, depending on what other characters the scene required--is portrayed as a monster with a somewhat softer side.
This role switching may be the only down side to the performance. It takes several scenes to get up to speed with who the characters are and what roles they play, but then they transition into other roles, and you start all over trying to figure it out. And with four different actors playing Hyde, it becomes a challenge to keep track of him. But this is offset by the almost mesmerizing effect of Jekyll's transformation into Hyde, portrayed by the men rotating around each other bathed in light that makes the motion appear almost streaky. There may be a little bit of magic in that potion after all.
Kudos to a cast and crew that turn this age-old tale of human nature and good vs. evil into a thrilling, suspenseful drama that still appeals to audiences nearly 130 years after it first appeared on the scene.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through March 30 at The Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway in Baltimore. The next production in its 98th season, The Foreigner, opens April 18. For more information, visit www.vagabondplayers.org.