The ability to contribute to fiction a character that becomes a universal referent is given to few of us in this life. Through an interesting, if explicable, concatenation of time, place, and ease of consumption, three of these figures burst forth within a few short years of each other: Sherlock Holmes, Count Dracula, and Doctor Jekyll. In the same way that American movies underwent a concentrated period of “disaster” epics during the most tremulous years of Vietnam, energy crises, and Watergate (a phenomenon that has returned to stir post-11 September anxieties, at least on television), British popular culture produced, and its public embraced, gothic depictions of crime and buried erotic neurosis.

Through the combined efforts of press, stage, and (in due time) radio and motion pictures, this shadowy triumvirate of tortured Victorian psychology soon held sway over even those masses who had never cracked a book outside a classroom. The mass-media versions of all three literary scions were each in some way bowdlerized, bastardized, or otherwise fatally altered: Watson’s screen and radio foolishness belied that good man’s intelligence (imagine Conan Doyle’s Holmes putting up with, let alone partnering, the fatuous ninny played by Nigel Bruce!); Dracula’s shocking sexual allure was downplayed in lieu of Bela Lugosi’s wooden creepiness and, until Francis Coppola made a stab at it, none of the so-called Dracula movies bothered with the plot of Bram Stoker’s terrifying epistolary novel; and Robert Louis Stevenson’s divided doctor was invariably paired with at least one woman, sometimes two (a fiancée for Jekyll, a prostitute to be menaced, driven mad and finally murdered by Edward Hyde.)

I relished, therefore, the appearance last week of the Aquila Theatre Company’s touring production of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (presented Thursday, November 10, by Duke Performances in the Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke University’s West Campus). Surely, a group devoted to re-examining and re-invigorating classic stage and published literature, and which prides itself on its “bold and innovative storytelling, respect for the original text and compelling stagecraft” could put the blood back into what those ignorant of Stevenson’s psychologically prescient 1886 novella presumably imagine to be a quaint, dusty classic.

Actors and directors like to joke that they prefer to work with dead playwrights; they’re so much less meddlesome, ha-ha. The flipside of that remark, of course, is that the deceased author (unless he’s lucky enough to have his work still protected by copyright and a strict licensing agent) has no one to protect his work from meddlesome actors and directors.

I suppose we could call what Aquila has done with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a farce at least, that’s what I think they were aiming at. But a good farce at least has the advantage of being funny. “Travesty” may be too angry a word, and really I can’t get quite that exercised. Stevenson, after all, has endured everything from The Nutty Professor to Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde and his reputation remains intact.

The Aquila Notion, arrived at in collaboration with one Louis Butelli, was to play up the matter of Richard Mansfield, a peripheral figure in the “Jack the Ripper” mythos. The American actor brought his own stage adaptation of Dr. Jekyll to London in 1887, where fashionable society quite literally swooned at his transformation into the homunculus figure of Mr. Hyde. It was this skill that brought him under the scrutiny of Scotland Yard, and Jack’s activities ultimately scared off Mansfield’s own public.

Now this could be a suitable, even striking, place from which to jump into (or off?) the Stevenson story. But rather than exploring, say, the macabre duality of natures shared by actor, role, and real-life monster, Butelli and Brian Parsons, the show’s director, spent the whole of their Dr. Jekyll lampooning their idea of antiquated, declamatory acting styles. Everyone in the play disported himself or herself idiotically, from Mansfield (Andrew Price) to the Ripper’s actual investigator Inspector Abberline (Richard Willis) and his hapless lieutenant (Darren Ryan) who along with the audience endured an interminable bout of music-hall transvestitism.

Even if we take into consideration the fact that every succeeding generation of actors looks upon its forebears with detached amusement, the absurd posturing and exaggerated “show-and-tell” theatrics envisioned by Butelli and Parsons were beyond countenancing. And what were we to make of a Bram Stoker who, unlike that bearded and inebriated Irishman, was depicted here as an impossibly weak-wristed theater queen obsessed by vampire bats? That he was played (minced?) by the very author of this obscene mélange pretty much says it all.

At a certain point in the proceedings, in a risible attempt at profundity, the ruminations of Mansfield and the doomed prostitute Kate Eddows (Natasha Piletich, whose accent wandered from Whitechapel to darkest Brooklyn) were juxtaposed by the actor’s purported rival (Andrew Schwartz) invoking Hamlet at Ophelia’s grave. Well, as long as we’re quoting Shakespeare, this Aquila production can best be summed up by paraphrasing Claudius: Their offense was rank, it stank to Heaven.

Duke Performances: Aquila Theatre Company: [inactive 5/08].