MinnesotaPlaylist invited some brave souls to critique a few recently closed productions - unconstrained by the temptation to recommend or reject - for further discussion. . .
One of the more intriguing Batman villains is called Harvey Two-Face, a former lawyer who makes all of his decisions based on the flip of a coin. One of his psychologists attempts to wean him away from this rigid duality: first by giving him a six-sided die, then by teaching him how to interpret a pack of seventy-two Tarot cards. The result? Unable to make decisions as simple as going to the bathroom, he shits himself. Batman's response? "Seems to me you've effectively destroyed the man's personality, Doctor."
And who am I to argue? He's the Goddamn Batman.
The schtick of Park Square's recent production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (directed by David Mann) is that various members of the ensemble (Alan Sorenson, Peter Christian Hansen, Stephen D’Ambrose, and Jean Salo) portray Hyde at various points, popping on a top hat and growling. The suggestion seems to be that Hyde, rather than simply being a menacing Victorian sci-fi villain brought forth by a chemical compound, represents some kind of Freudian creature that exists within all of us.
The actors all dive into the role of Hyde with hammy enthusiasm, chewing the scenery, squatting like a knot of bloated toads, leering at the audience. But Hyde is portrayed so broadly that -- despite the fact that we see him doing some pretty awful stuff -- he never felt like a legitimate threat to me. I suspect this was a deliberate choice, but the immediate result is that any kind of dramatic tension fizzles for, say, the first two-thirds of the show.
Hyde's personality has become so fragmented that no dramatically compelling personality manages to emerge. Which is fine -- except when the script demands that he be something more than a bundle of cunning and impulse. In particular, the love story concocted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher strains credulity to the point of absurdity, because the creature created by this production is incapable of believable and nuanced emotion. He's a cartoon.
While the production falls apart when Hyde does, it creates a pretty compelling portrait of his counterpart. The portrayal of Jekyll by Steve Hendrickson is that of an intellectual struggling to rationalize an addiction that's run far, far out of his control: "...no lunatic in a mad fit, but a sane man fighting for his soul..." to quote Dracula, the other bit of Victorian horror that was running through my mind during the show.
In fact, the one scene that I found genuinely unsettling was also, perhaps, the simplest: a scene portraying Dr. Jekyll and Elizabeth (Emily Gunyou Halaas) in a hotel room, while he struggles to conceal the fits of bestial rage overtaking his own body. Watching that kindly old man begin to bellow and snarl, his features twisting into a kind of nightmarish deformity, was profoundly disturbing to witness. This, it strikes me, is perhaps the one scene that truly embraces both the theatrical and philosophical promise of the premise: that of two men trapped in a single body.
The idea that seems to excite people about this story is one of duality -- that a man can be broken down into his good and evil impulses. This script seems to be a deliberate reaction against that idea. After all, the moral absolutism of Stevenson's day has fallen out of fashion, which is why we must have Hyde in love and a Jekyll capable of murder.
In fact, it's precisely those two decisions that neatly encapsulate my primary complaint with the production. Jekyll's murder of a close friend is as bizarre as the love scenes with Hyde, and for much the same reason: because we haven’t seen enough leading up to this point to suggest that they're capable of such extreme behavior. It reads, then, as dogma trumping art: as being symptomatic of the playwright's assertion that Good is Evil and Evil is Good, and that there's no real distinction between the two. That's a fine premise for a play: but without two complete personalities to drive the script, the idea fails to play out onstage.
There's an old theatrical saw that the devil gets all the best lines. I respectfully disagree. Once the appealing surface is stripped away, there isn't much to pure hedonism but a kind of pointless grinding banality. The complexity that I find fascinating lies with good men struggling to be virtuous.
I submit that this is probably the place that the playwright and I part ways. The relativism that Hatcher's script implies doesn't add any new layers to the concept; it just makes everything gray -- and in a manner that I found dramatically unsatisfying. Absolutism at its best proposes not that the world is divided into good and evil men, but that every man's soul is a battlefield between the two. Over a century ago, Robert Louis Stevenson gave us a story that did just that. And the script is at its best -- and perhaps its most daring -- when it doesn't shy away from that premise, as well.❦