Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Two-Faced: "Jekyll & Hyde" is Really Good and Really Bad.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 28, 2009 at 9:30 AM

While driving to Germantown Community Theatre to take in a rather unfortunate production of Gorey Stories my twin girls (who are seven-years-old and terribly excited about all things Halloweenish) started asking questions about Frankenstein. As my wife Charlotte and I tried to untangle their weird web of wonder and curiosity we quickly realized that we couldn't be sure if we were taking our answers from Mary Shelley's seminal book, which we've both read, or if we were drawing our conclusions from the countless plays, films, cartoons and comic books that followed. Unable to achieve any kind of narrative consistency we conceded our ignorance and just started making things up. I imagine that our pop culture dilemma isn't unique and I also imagine that many who attend Theatre Memphis' production of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde will find themselves adrift on a similar ice floe. As is the case with Shelley's un-dead abomination Robert Louis Stevenson's strange tale of a doctor who transforms himself into his own doppelganger— a creature of terrible fury and tremendous appetites— has been told and retold so many times it's difficult to keep all the versions straight. And maybe that's how it's supposed to be. Perhaps these stories never really belonged to their original authors, but to a collective consciousness that needs to play with its monsters and evolve them from time to time. That's where Theatre Memphis' production of Jekyll & Hyde, Jeffrey Hatcher's curious adaptation of Stevenson's classic tingler, comes in. Hatcher's bold abstraction of this oft told tale is suspenseful, shocking and true at least to the spirit of the original, even when it wanders off in new directions.

In spite of some odd inconsistencies of time and fashion—all scarcely worth mentioning— director

James Dale Green (L) Matt Reed (R)
  • James Dale Green (L) Matt Reed (R)
Jerre Dye's stylized approach to J&H does creepy justice to Hatcher's gorey take on a horrible story that was originally inspired by heavy doses of cocaine and the unsolved murders of “Springheel” Jack the Ripper. Still I couldn't help feeling tricked rather than treated by the militaristic precision with which the drama was presented. Something this gritty should spread like a bloodstain or grow organically like bacteria in a petri dish. And over time as certain elements of the play became monotonous I began to wonder if Hatcher's script was really as sophisticated as it had seemed on the page. That's when I had to remind myself that I was sitting near the back of the auditorium and Theatre Memphis' main stage has been known to nullify anything approaching genuine intimacy. And at almost every turn intimacy was the missing ingredient.

Dye has made the most out of a versatile, ever-shifting set that consists of little more than a series of rolling fences and a bright red door that does double duty as the play's most practical metaphor. The real star, however, is Diane Kinkennon's lighting design, which inflicts pain and pleasure in equal measures. Her use of sterile overhead shop lights during an autopsy scene is perhaps the most perfectly perverse technical element in the show.

The central conceit of this J&H is the playwright's decision to have Hyde portrayed by not one, but many actors, often at the same time. In theory they would seem to represent many facets of Hyde's character and that could be an interesting choice if each facet was at least somewhat developed. But that's not exactly the case. Of all the actors to undertake the snarling role only James Dale Green finds a comfortable blend of marred manners and lurking menace. Matt Reed gets close as the only aspect of Hyde capable of finding love but his scenes with Elizabeth (An excellent Erin Shelton) are the ones most damaged by the show's lack of intimacy. Reed is too often caught “acting” the role of Hyde when he should be wearing it like a finely detailed suit.

J&H boasts a number of solid performances by experienced veterans and newcomers alike but Kinon Keplinger's Jekyll is by far the most fully developed character skulking across Theatre Memphis' stage this Halloween season. The good doctor's desire to conceal the true nature of his experiments thoroughly erodes his more admirable qualities. He begins the show as an ethical, admirable, and often courageous voice of reason. What follows is a painful and all too believable struggle with deceit, desire and madness.

Hatcher's script promises to evolve both Hyde's character and the audience's relationship with this well-known monster but that promise goes largely unfulfilled. Ultimately though, that may all be beside the point. Jekyll & Hyde is the season's best show so far and horror fans looking for a bloody Halloween thrill will not be disappointed.

Theatre Memphis
o 630 Perkins Ext.
o phone 682-8323

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