Dr. Jekyll (Larry Oblander II) and Mr. Hyde (Patrick Golden) in ‘HYDE‘ at Paper Wing Fremont. Photo by Jay DeVine
By Philip Pearce
THE STRANGE CASE of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde is a story that has inspired exciting stage adaptations by major dramatists like David Edgar and rewarded actors like John Barrymore, Fredric March and Spencer Tracy with rave reviews and even (in March’s case) an Academy Award.
The latest theater folk to fall under the spell of Stevenson’s twisted schizophrenic hero are Beverly Van Pelt and Patrick R. Golden, who have written a spin-off and are currently acting it at Paper Wing’s small branch theater on Fremont Avenue.
It’s a script full of ideas and information, chiefly philosophical and medical, and it offers an interesting new slant on the tale of the upright suburban doctor and his dastardly and murderous alter ego. Stevenson’s story and the adaptations I know of present Jekyll and Hyde as contrasting elements in a performance by a single actor. His success tends to be measured by how well he distinguishes the outwardly virtuous character from the hidden evil one.
Van Pelt and Golden separate the two men, with the emphasis on Hyde, who is presented as a disgruntled Cockney misfit who murders a charming medical school classmate whose wealth and charisma he resents. He then struggles to take on his idol’s appearance, Harley Street medical practice and love life, even venturing a hopeful dollop of Henry Jekyll’s philanthropy. But Hyde’s ugly criminality soon kicks in with a succession of Jack the Ripper style killings that make him the object of a major London manhunt.
Titled simply Hyde, the new play abounds in the fog-bound atmosphere of Victorian London movies and is peopled with some of the broad character types we meet in a lot of spooky Victorian fiction.
There’s Jekyll’s lady love, a strong-minded female doctor named Lenore, like E. A. Poe’s favorite heroine. Devoted to her downtrodden Whitechapel patients, Dr. Lenore Lanyon becomes increasingly puzzled at changes in her one-time fiance. She is played by Beverly Van Pelt with a large-eyed intensity that suggests, not without cause, that under her no-nonsense surface, this lady is something more than just a nice East London Mary Poppins.
Van Pelt’s husband and fellow playwright Patrick Golden plays the villain/hero with his usual clarity, assurance and wit. His best moment of the evening, to my way of thinking, probably lasts about a minute and a half. Having just throttled Jekyll, he faces a mirror and murmurs, three or possibly four times, “How do you do? I’m Henry Jekyll. . .” in tones that start Cockney and move subtly into the clipped and correct cadences of a Professor Henry Higgins. I’ve a theory that musicians, and that was and still is Golden’s other career, are the best stage dialecticians. It comes from listening not just to the vowel and consonant sounds but to the melody pattern a particular dialect makes. However it was done, this vocal transition was acted with a skill the small opening night audience may have missed simply because it was so brief.
One of several problems with the show is that Golden and Van Pelt’s script supplies almost everyone in the cast with British dialect challenges which they are not very well equipped to meet. Ironically, the best supporting work in that regard was done by the two actors who concentrated on character and didn’t try too hard to sound English. One was Larry Oblander II, a strong and convincing Jekyll even when he was being murdered, and Jesse Juarez III, who played Thomas Bond, the investigating London police surgeon heading up the Hyde manhunt, with humor and sympathy under a surface of official bluster and determination.
Jekyll’s loyal but increasingly suspicious housekeeper is a Mrs. Danvers type with the same last name as the crazy caretaker Grace Poole in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Cheryl Karoly acted her with intelligent assurance but struggled with an accent which possibly aimed at Cockney but occasionally came across more like Yorkshire or Newcastle in what ended up a distracting puzzle.
Amanda Platsis gave a fair but uneven impression of the traditional melodramatic Cockney barmaid and then reappeared as a prissy medic helping Juarez to autopsy Hyde’s latest victim.
As the rascally, grave-robbing ‘Russian’ Mike Ostrog, Robert Feeney was sly, spirited and energetic, but until it became clear he was meant to be from Ukraine, I thought he was a fairly convincing Irishman!
The script is full of interesting moments but really suffers from too slow a start. Act I begins excitingly enough with Hyde in a black topper escaping the scene of his first major crime. But from then till a piercing scream at the end of Act I, most of the action consists of pairs of characters talking about themselves, or about other characters, or about stuff that happened before the curtain went up. I did welcome the interposing of flashbacks to Jekyll and Hyde’s Edinburgh medical school days, which clarified some relationships and backstory details in real time action. But without being able to read one’s program in the dark, it might have helped to write some kind of lead-in that would make it clear the action has leaped back in time.
Overall, it felt like there was too much plot left to unwind in Act II, which begins with a comic autopsy of somebody Hyde has killed without being detected, combined with a progress report on the search for suspects. It’s a sequence full of more medical detail than it probably deserves and tricked out in hunks of sausage viscera and undigested food that are good for a few initial ghoulish giggles but peter out into the kind of blood and guts material that often makes a hit in boys’ club campfire skits.
There are real moments of spooky power and meaning, and there’s a surprise ending that is exciting but seems to require some pretty convoluted explaining. What could improve the show if and when it gets another airing is some judicious pruning of material that doesn’t directly forward the story and a decision as to whether all that concern with British dialect doesn’t just get in the way.
Hyde continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 through November 7th.