At a certain point, maybe when a classic novella has been adapted for the 50th time into a stage drama or a screenplay — while the title is tossed off in casual conversation thousands of times every day by people who never read the original — fictional characters are no longer the creations of their authors. Exhibits 1 and 1A: Through the alchemy of reiteration, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have been sublimated into myth.
The Jeffrey Hatcher adaptation, now at CAST through Nov. 5, struck me as so completely different from any I'd experienced before that I scurried home to find the original text — in my yellowing paperback edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's short stories. Yikes, Hatcher's is the most authentic of the lot, including the Frank Wildhorn musical and the Hollywood versions of 1931 and 1941.
Precisely what I expected, for the Hatcher adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, last presented in Charlotte by Actors Scene Unseen in 2010, was even more scrupulously faithful to the original Henry James novella. Notwithstanding this admirable fidelity, toying with the casting seems to be a Hatcher trademark in his adaptations. All the roles in Screw, with the exception of the governess at the center of the ghost tale, were played by one actor. In Jekyll and Hyde, six of the eight cast members are playing multiple roles. But there are a couple of perverse wrinkles.
Jon Bowlby, in his Charlotte debut, portrays Dr. Henry Jekyll but not Edward Hyde. Four other actors singly or collectively play Hyde, each of them doubling in at least one other role. Of the four, Bruce Florence dominates the evil persona of Hyde in his Charlotte debut, doubling as man-about-town Richard Enfield. Robert Crozier shoulders the largest chunk of the narrative chores as Gabriel Utterson, Jekyll's solicitor and closest confidante. George Pond, yet another newcomer, plays both murder victim Sir Danvers Carew and Police Inspector Newcomen when he isn't moonlighting as the murderer. And Tom Moody is most individualized as Dr. H.K. Lanyon, a more straight-laced member of the medical profession than the roguish Jekyll.
With four lurid red doors flanking the arena stage configuration for this CAST production, the four swarming Hydes do conjure up a supernatural aura. At the relatively new 28th Street location, with mostly unfamiliar faces onstage, new set designer Elizabeth Shanks surrounding us with a grubby London cityscape, and stage director Audrey Alford going solo for the first time in Charlotte, this strangely concepted Jekyll will be pleasurably disorienting for even the most faithful CAST subscriber. Tables, chairs, and even Jekyll's laboratory rise up from an incredibly squat platform in the middle of the theater, making Shanks' set something of an engineering feat, since the actors must take on the responsibility of the slick scene changes.
Hatcher attempts the impossible by seeing the story through Utterson's eyes, transporting us back to that innocent moment in Western consciousness when everyone didn't already know that Jekyll and Hyde were the same person. Beyond that, Hatcher makes a laudable attempt to provide Jek/Hyde with a plausible motive for murdering Carew, changing him from an MP to a quack physician who ruins Jekyll's career. The CAST space transforms niftily into a medical amphitheater for those pivotal scenes where Carew expounds his bogus theories — and Jekyll heckles.
Like his predecessors, Hatcher cannot resist writing in a juicy woman's role to make the RLS story leap off the page. Here, we also take the road less travelled. For Michelle Fleshman-Cross, portraying the slatternly chambermaid Elizabeth Jelkes, is attracted to Hyde and repelled by Jekyll! Needless to say, the dashing Florence isn't anything like the repulsive gnome whom readers first encountered in 1886. The scenes between Fleshman-Cross and Florence crackle with a sinfully decadent chemistry.