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The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

This play's creepiness slithers through a weak theatrical adaptation

Marvelously melodramatic, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the darkest gothic tales about the dangers of the unconscious mind to crawl out of the 19th century. It's so eerie, its creepiness can slither through even the weakest theatrical adaptation — like the one written by Eberle Thomas and Barbara Redmond, currently being produced by the folks at UpStage Theatre in Lambert Hall. In fact, though this entire production is as rickety as it gets, Stevenson's original idea glows like the dusky light falling from the theater's enormous stained-glass windows as the stage lights come up on the story.

Stevenson asks a question we still grapple with: Should we always be held responsible for our actions? Can our unconscious minds make us unwilling participants in horrible deeds? Andrea Yates's dreadful tale and the outcomes of her trials reveal how deep this conflict runs even today. The Victorian writer was definitely onto something when he created Mr. Hyde, the human monster who lives inside the bespectacled bookworm Dr. Jekyll.

In this production, Randy Wayne Creager plays Dr. Jekyll as a sort of bumbling idiot savant. He loves the lab but can barely speak when sitting in the room with Rachel Lanyon (Melissa Mumper), the sweet-faced woman who adores him. In the lab, though, he's a genius, or so he thinks. Which is why he avoids his lady friend to spend all his time trying to find an elixir that will change our chemistry and take us up a few rungs on the evolutionary ladder. It's no wonder that once he experiments on himself, drinking his own red poison — the one that creates half-mad hell-raiser Mr. Hyde — dear, sweet Dr. Jekyll can't stop himself from wanting more. One night out on the town as wild-man Hyde, and Jekyll's hooked. He starts spending his nights yowling at the moon as the bad-ass Hyde, then he comes home every morning where he turns back into a mousy doctor.

Meanwhile, all the women in Jekyll's life are driven to the brink. Housekeeper Jeanne Poole (Stacy Bakri) dotes on her boss but gets scared when Mr. Hyde appears and tries to have his evil way with her. Jekyll convinces Miss Poole not to quit, promising that she won't have to see Hyde ever again. She has no idea both men are one and the same, which is a little far-fetched, given that there's virtually no change in Creager's appearance when he turns from one character to the other. He whips off his glasses, bugs out his eyes a bit and speaks with a snaky hiss, but that's about it. Still, Miss Poole can't see it, and Bakri's strong performance is so convincing, she just about pulls it off.

Girlfriend Rachel is beside herself with longing for the geeky Jekyll. He tells her how much he cares for her, then disappears into his lab, leaving Rachel to pine away. Mumper is lovely as the woman who cares for her oddball. And like Bakri, she gives one of the more developed performances of this cast.

Less credible are the men. Robert Lowe is amusing as the butler, but generally there's too much pausing and air between his lines. Glenn Dodson's Dr. Lanyon, Jekyll's close friend, delivers a stiffly competent, if uninspired, performance. And poor Creager, as the heart and soul of the entire show, is in desperate need of a good director, which he doesn't get with Arnold Richie. Creager is also much too slow with his lines, and though he's got enough charisma to carry off the large part, little of his charm is put to good use. Richie has pushed the good Dr. Jekyll into a corner of the stage and given him a fistful of delicate bottles that are supposed to be a "lab." Mostly, Creager's left to tinker vaguely with a white powder. And when he's stricken with the molecular change that's supposed to turn him from Jekyll to Hyde, he falls into a lump on the stage, only to stand up moments later with his eyes practically spinning in his head, and that is supposed to convince us of his change.

In general, the director has pushed all the action to the back of the small stage at Lambert Hall. The venue itself does not offer a very graceful performance space, but Richie exacerbates the problems by not making good use of what's there. For a good deal of the performance, the actors look uncomfortable and awkward, standing in a series of clumsy knots beside each other, with their hands hanging uselessly. And the technical aspects, which include a delayed sound system and a half-painted set, undermine rather than help the production.

Still, for its flaws, the play does bring to life one of the most deliciously morbid explorations of the human mind ever committed to paper. The story remains strong enough to shoulder even a weak production.

 
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