M.F.A. student’s creative impulse makes coming unhinged come together on stage in a contemporary adaptation of a Victorian classic
Oct. 24, 2011
Director and College of Fine Arts student Daria Davis points to an unlikely character for providing the most important lines of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Jeffrey Hatcher’s modern adaptation of the iconic tale. In the closing scene of Act One, an otherwise unmentioned parlor maid gives a statement to the police after witnessing Edward Hyde commit a heinous act of violence.
“I’m sorry. The better in me would have called out sooner,” the maid stammers, “but the bad in me … wanted to watch.”
That friction that exists between contradictory impulses – not just the dilemma of doing what’s right or wrong but between public posturing and private desires – serves as the focal point for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” which opens at the B. Iden Payne Theatre on Friday, Oct. 28 at 8 p.m.
“The interesting, complex question that we try to address is what happens when you try and separate those two things into wholly good or evil,” poses Davis, a master’s of fine arts candidate in the Department of Theatre and Dance. “Where do they blend together? It’s about that push and pull of competing needs – that gray area.”
In popular culture, there seems to be a growing fascination with this dilemma, as anti-hero characters – Walter White on TV’s “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire”’s Omar Little, Dexter Morgan on “Dexter” – survive by their own moral codes and occasionally make terrible decisions for all the right reasons.
One of the most widely produced and respected playwrights in America, Hatcher takes a similar approach with his revision of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” His depiction of Jekyll and Hyde is not one of mere transformation but of subversion, with the two personas sharing some disturbing similarities.
“What is especially striking about Hatcher’s version of the novel is that it expands boldly on Stevenson’s preoccupation with the Victorian concept of the double life,” comments English Associate Professor Elizabeth M. Richmond-Garza, a program director in Comparative Literature at the university, who’s assisting the production. “For Stevenson, Jekyll and Hyde are not fully separate and compartmentalized. Soon after Jekyll’s potion allows the two halves of the protagonist to split, those halves start to bleed back into each other.
“Hatcher’s version goes further. He multiplies the Hydes, creating a truly complex and complexly tormented figure who must face a chorus of alternative selves, not a single personal demon.”
Hatcher will lend further insight in an intimate post-performance conversation with Davis and dramaturg Cassidy Browning on Nov. 3. The event is the second of three planned “Parlor Games” — free discussions intended to bring the general public closer to the world of the production. (The final discussion will take place Nov. 9.)
The production is a challenging departure for Davis. A graduate of the Literary Apprenticeship Program at Steppenwolf Theater Company and The Theater School at DePaul University, the 29-year-old director is known for large-scale, site-specific productions and for her close collaboration with writers on new works.
Instead, Davis plans on treating the B. Iden Payne Theatre as a “found space,” using the buildings unique properties as elements in the story, and applying what she calls “rough magic” to bring Jekyll and Hyde alive, with roving lamp posts, a shadowy canvas, and large body bags used in lieu of actors for acts of violence.
In the production, six people play 21 characters, with four of them being doppelgangers of Dr. Jekyll. It’s a physical, visceral play with a lot of quick changes. You can gauge the mood simply by the key words Davis has been stressing in rehearsals: shadowing, dissolving, revealing, isolating and watching.
The goal is to engender the audience with the same feelings of simultaneous repulsion and attraction that the characters experience, to in some small way implicate them as witnesses. Davis is even extending the stage about eight feet into the audience to help heighten the effect.
“All the transitions between place and character are part of the drama of the play,” Davis says. “It is a world operated and transformed by the actors both psychologically and physically. The play is made up of the feeling that someone is following you and that fear of what’s to come. That’s exactly what Hyde is to Jekyll.”
Davis has worked closely with a three-person team of dramaturges, specialists whose outside perspectives help shape, focus and facilitate the final product, as well as her mentor Madge Darlington, the founder and co-producing artist director of Austin’s Rude Mechanicals Theatre Collective.
“Daria has done a good job of being true to the text while at the same time endowing the play with her feminist perspective,” Darlington observes. “Hyde’s female victims are not wilting flowers but strong women with agency who end up in bad situations.”
This modern telling should provide a stark contrast to the original production, which, as Richmond-Garza points out, appeared in London in 1887, just one year after publication, and used a single actor, Richard Mansfield, to depict the split personality.
“The Victorians would have loved to see our Austin production,” says Richmond-Garza, a specialist in 19th century theater and a distinguished associate professor in the English Department.
“The further splitting of Hyde in this version is unnerving, as it goes beyond the idea of a simple duality. This complexity would have startled Victorians, just as it does us. To have to cope with multiple versions of evil is so much more alarming than a simple yes/no choice.”
“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” runs Oct. 28-Nov. 6 at B. Iden Payne Theatre (300 E. 23rd St.) in the F. Loren Winship Drama Building on The University of Texas at Austin campus.
Performance times are Oct. 28, 30, Nov. 2-4 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 30 and Nov. 6 at 2 p.m. Tickets ($20 adults, $17 faculty and staff, $15 students) are on sale now at the Bass Concert Hall Box Office, most H-E-B stores, all Texas Box Office Outlets, online at Texas Performing Arts or by calling 512-477-6060 or 800-982-BEVO.
- A short interview with Daria Davis about “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”
- Parlor Games: Part One
- Engaging Adaptation: A talk with playwright Jeffrey Hatcher
Thursday, Nov. 3 following the 8 p.m. performance
- Parlor Games: Part Two
Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 4 p.m.
By Austin Powell
College of Fine Arts
For more information, contact: Leslie Lyon, College of Fine Arts, 512 475 7033;
Photos: Liz Love
On the banner: Director Daria Davis and her creepy cast from "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" on stage at the B. Iden Payne Theatre.