Perhaps for Theatre Three artistic director Jeffrey Schmidt, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in his ambitious first season is an attempt to give audiences something familiar. Sandwiched between a new holiday show and a regional premiere play based on Dungeons & Dragons, Robert Louis Stevenson's famous tale might be a comfort to longtime T3 audiences who are still trying to gel with the theater's new direction.
It's a shame, then, that this production doesn't have the finesse necessary to make a classic feel relevant. Jeffrey Hatcher's "new and shocking" adaptation is clumsy, as it forces two-thirds of the cast to slump its shoulders and growl its lines as they portray different sides of the monstrous Mr. Hyde. Only Michael Federico and Natalie Young stay in singular character throughout, he as the reckless Dr. Jekyll and she as the poor-but-cheeky girl who inexplicably falls for Hyde.
On the page, it's an intriguing idea, but onstage it quickly turns messy. Amanda West's set scatters crimson doors around the theater for all the Hydes to crash through, each time sporting the character's heavy, acid green-lined cape (courtesy of costume designer Melissa Panzarello) as an attempt at continuity. As Hyde, Jeremy Schwartz and Cameron Cobb each convey a menacing, volatile presence, but Robert Gemaehlich and Kia Nicole Boyer are both better suited to playing the various periphery characters that populate the script.
The four actors pull extra duty as butlers, students, investigators, and Dr. Jekyll's colleagues, and each manages a respectable quick switch between accents and physical tics. But with so much swirling around our dear doctor, it can sometimes be a challenge to keep up with who's who.
And who's in what play, sometimes, as the levels of intensity vary wildly in any given scene. One actor might be veering toward melodrama, while another is poker-faced, and director Christie Vela doesn't exhibit a firm enough hand to keep the company pointed in the same direction.
Amid all the eerie fog and flickering Victorian lamps (Aaron Johansen makes great use of red filters), there are moments when it's easier to stop thinking so much and just try to be scared by Stevenson's strange tale. His commentary on humanity's moral struggle doesn't come through as much here — it's more about wheeling in the plastic corpses for dissection and skulking around dimly lit corners than taking down society's hypocrites.
The creepiest scene comes not from Hyde's nighttime exploits, but when Jekyll books a room at the hotel where Young's Elizabeth works. Try as he might, Jekyll cannot stop certain details slipping from Hyde's mind into his, and the name "Elizabeth" leads him to seek out the pretty young chambermaid. But the streetwise girl doesn't sense danger from the timid scientist, and it's not until he blocks the door and grabs her arm that she realizes the peril of her situation.
There's palpable fear emanating from Federico then, as he realizes that Hyde is closer to taking over their shared body than he previously assumed. But there's power too, and a hint that the monster isn't necessarily the one in the cape and top hat. And that's scarier than any fake cadaver.
Theatre Three's production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde runs through February 11.