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Theater review: There’s much to ‘Hyde’ at the Underground

In the tarot of horror literature laid out by Stephen King, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson represents the hidden beast within, whose totemic form is the werewolf. But the intriguing drama directed by Jonathan Manchester that opened Thursday night at the Underground tells the old tale anew by revealing that the beast within is legion.

This particular adaptation comes courtesy of Jeffrey Hatcher, and is the fifth work by the playwright to have been performed in Duluth in the past four years. Hatcher’s version conforms to the scope of the novella, wherein we meet Hyde first. Jekyll’s infamous experiment and the resulting dramatic transformations are not part of the equation.

Consequences, not causes — and ultimately culpability — are Hatcher’s focus. Which is why his version offers two significant changes from the standard approach to Stevenson’s archetypal tale.

First, Rob Larson plays Dr. Henry Jekyll, but not his dark side counterpart Mr. Edward Hyde, which allows for dialogue covering both the philosophical and the practical between the pair (head turns and tossed hair only work in a musical). Second, and equally significant, Hyde is played by not one, but four actors.

Team Hyde also plays all of the minor characters in the tale as well as doubling as the primary foils in the narrative: Michael Kraklio as Utterson, Michael Pederson as Carew, Luke Moravec as Lanyon, and KT Magnolia as Poole. There was no damsel in distress in Stevenson’s novella, and while Hollywood and Broadway added a good girl/bad girl pairing, Hatcher’s version offers Kitara Peterson’s Elizabeth in their stead as the pawn trapped in the middle.

Larson unravels Jekyll’s character throughout the evening, the moments when the doctor displays his deductive skills, falls into the depths of despair, and transforms for a momentary return from the dark side standing out in particular. Peterson makes Elizabeth refreshingly normal, a necessity for Hatcher’s revised end game to work.

The Hydes offer an array of shadings to the beasts within: Kraklio the thin veneer of civilized behavior, Magnolia the omnipresent threat beneath the surface, Pederson the sadistic pleasure and dark humor, and Moravec not only the pure rage but a surprising element that proves to be the lynchpin to Hatcher’s end game.

Ashley Wereley’s sparse scenic design combines a trio of platforms with a troublesome door on wheels, with towering black curtains draped along the Underground’s distinct brickwork. Props are arrayed against the back wall, along with the actors when they are not on stage.

Manchester’s staging of the reverse transformation scene was quite effective, and he arranged his off-stage actors in a variety of background tableaus. The more Hydes on stage, the more striking the scene, and I was surprised by Hatcher’s restraint in exploring that central conceit and how rarely he was “very merry in his morbidity.”

Hatcher’s moral to this strange case is revealed when it is suggested to Jekyll that he stay clear of Edward Hyde.

“That is not possible,” the doctor replies.

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