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North Carolina State University has a real treat in store for the Triangle theatregoer. In one of the most imaginative recreations I have seen in a very great while, director Mia Self has brought to the stage Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of the novella Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Self has assembled a cast of only ten to tell this familiar tale of the battle between the forces of good and evil, but the impressive staging tells this story in a new and engrossing way by means of a strikingly beautiful set and some truly dynamic stagework.
As most of us already know, the story takes place in London. It is 1883 at the College of London Hospital, and there is an intense rivalry between two of the School's faculty, Sir Danvers Carew (Raven Stone) and Dr. Henry Jekyll (Nico Peaks). Carew is a stuffed shirt, a peacock of a man who puts forth his pet theories because there is no one to keep him in check. That is, of course, except for Dr. Jekyll. Jekyll has no compunction about calling the good doctor out, in the most public of places and in the most dramatic fashion. When Jekyll dares to expose Carew for the fraud that he is, Carew calls him on the carpet before the board of directors.
But there is, in the coarser streets of London, another, more sinister tale taking place. On a back street where the gentry would fear to tread, there is a new face among the populace, and it is by no means a friendly one. This man, though he may have the features of a gentleman, is by no means gentle. He is coarse; he is angry; he is evil. He seems to have no checks and balances, and the fulfillment of his own base needs seems to be his only desire. He is Mr. Edward Hyde (Louis Bailey).
Here is one aspect of this play's exceptionally imaginative staging. While one might expect Mr. Hyde to be played by the same actor who plays Dr. Jekyll, this is by no means the case. In fact, Mr. Hyde, and all of his accompanying evil, is played not by one, but by four actors. Further, the show is performed on one of the most beautifully staged and integral sets to come along in this new century — a gorgeous glass array of doors, nine of them, mirrored yet clear, depending on how they are lit. Surrounding each door is a portico of niches, each filled with the tools of the doctor's trade: vials, test tubes, instruments, all neatly arranged and all individually lit. From these niches come all of the props necessary for the actors to do their superior work.
If it sounds like I'm gushing, I am. While this show would stand on the shoulders of this cast alone, this play is raised considerably by a stunning set. Comprising two separate stories and a vast array of the apothecary's tools, this set is to die for. Designed by Jayme Mellema and lit by Joshua Reaves, this performance space is truly a thing of beauty. Even if this show were not as fine as it is, I would recommend you see it, if only to see this spectacular setting.
Also included in this grand staging is a wicked soundtrack, which combines familiar music with muffled groans, evil laughs, echoes of the spoken word, and an overall stellar combination of sound that adds immeasurably to the performance. Designed by Reaves, this background embellishes the work onstage. Indeed, every aspect of this show is superior; it all combines to draw us inexorably into this tale of evil and terror. We are excited to be drawn into this show, and gladly surrender our disbelief and are soon engrossed in this exceptional performance.
I learned things from this show. While being completely familiar with the overall tale, this adaptation makes the performance more real by revealing to us parts of Stevenson's novella which are often omitted from more mundane adaptations, such as Jekyll and Carew's rivalry and the fact that Hyde has a lover. Elizabeth Jelkes (Mary Elizabeth Lennon) is drawn to the wretched yet charismatic Hyde. She is the lynchpin that keeps Hyde alive, despite Jekyll's increasingly desperate attempts to quell him.
While Louis Bailey plays the largest percentage of Hyde onstage, that there are four incarnations make it seem as though Hyde is everywhere, inside Jekyll's mind as well as all over London. Some of the best moments are when all four Hydes surround Jekyll and taunt him. Hyde's other personas are played by Raven Stone, Mathew Tucker, and Sydney Smallwood. All three of these actors have massive jobs to do; they each take on as many as four separate characters in bringing this show to life. Indeed, most of the actors onstage slip from one sharp, distinct character to the next, seemingly at will. We have no problem following these shifting faces, and their chameleonesque changes are a treat to witness.
While University Theatre at NCSU has been rather exceptional this season, it is unquestionably true that they have saved their best for last. In this final show of the season we have exceptional performance, sound, lights, and staging, with some of the best ensemble acting I have seen this year. These actors are focused, dynamic, and quick; the tension and the power do not fade. To say I recommend this show is a gross understatement. Every single aspect of this show is superior, and you would be doing yourself an injustice to miss it.
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde continues through Sunday, April 17. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.