The Transformation of Dr. Jekyll
nytheatre.com review by George Tynan Crowly
August 11, 2006
In The Transformation of Dr. Jekyll, Rabbit Hole Ensemble seeks to retell, in a modern context, Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale about a morally upright scientist whose chemical experiments unleash his sexually violent alter ego. In the original story, there's a lot that's Victorian. This version is simpler, the language is modern (with only a couple reference points from Stevenson's original, ornate prose), and there's an attempt to make updated comments on how the media would respond to the crimes and on what sort of dominatrix scenes a modern reenactment would include. This is all done with only three actors, two black chairs, very simple costuming, a few colorful props, and a kind of commendably upbeat, youthful actor-energy. The mode of storytelling aspires to be off-hand, modernist, and self-consciously comic. So, in moments that would otherwise cry out for extreme Gothic horror, the manner of this piece is to deflate the situation and our own expectations. For example, in the critical moment of transforming from man to monster, Dr. Jekyll breaks out of character to tell us "This is where I change into...him." And then, to further abdicate any responsibility to horrify or surprise us, "You all have some idea of what he looks like."
Although it is a short, lively piece, and the two actresses (Amanda Broomell and Emily Hartford, who are called upon to play a vivid showcase of types) certainly keep the exercise moving, its intent seems a bit uncertain, and the comic efforts often fall short. The protagonist as written (and as played by Paul Daily) seems an only vaguely articulate, unassuming guy, more Walter Mitty than Byron. If that choice were more fully pursued in the writing, we might have a neat satire of modern life, where no man has very far to fall anymore. But this play doesn't seem to want to deliver on that possibility either. So, what we're left with is the outline of the familiar story, some clever scenes between Jekyll and the prostitute who shames him for being so pedestrian ("You know what you are, baby, you're a tourist."), a short scene with a severed finger that is almost horrific enough to be funny, and an overall reluctance to engage, one way or another, with the original's powerful themes of repression and horror.
The program says the play was created by the Rabbit Hole Ensemble, and that lack of a singularly responsible author may explain the piece's lack of focused vision. What is admirable and fun, though, is the staging and the clarity of its storytelling. The cast and director Edward Elefterion show expertise in moving us all over the map with very very very little except their own commitment, a lot of mime, a kazoo, and two simple hand-held lights manipulated hither and yon by the nimble performers.
I saw the show on its opening, and, while the piece was clearly well-rehearsed, perhaps more performances with more audiences will call forth the sort of dry, modern spin that Rabbit Hole may have been after.