BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
ST. PETERSBURG — I was coming home from some place at the end of the world, as the light faded of a Sunday night, and my way lay through a part of town where there was literally nothing to be seen but lamps. Street after street, and all the folks asleep — street after street, all lighted up as if for a procession and all as empty as a church. . . .
Okay, you get the point, and with apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, from which the above is mostly lifted — it is Enfield's account of first encountering the monstrous Hyde — but I can't think of a better way to convey my enthusiasm for the new show by freeFall Theatre. Directed by Eric Davis, it's a staging of Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of the Gothic thriller-diller, which I saw Sunday night. As a thinking person's Halloween outing, this can't be beat.
The first thing that strikes you as you enter the Studio@620 is how the gallery has been transformed with a dazzling set (by Steven K. Mitchell): silver-gray planks covering a wall, bluish light, the white tile stage, a bright red door. A music box plays.
Then the place goes black, a woman screams, a factory whistle blows, an ax slams through the door, and you're hooked.
Peter Robel tops a superb cast as Dr. Jekyll, the tormented Victorian doctor who dares to explore the human psyche, downing a beaker of what looks like blue Scope mouthwash to turn himself into a demon. Davis' production is so crisply acted and fun in its creepy, atmospheric effects that you don't have to take seriously Stevenson's philosophy on good and evil — "the beast in man's nature'' — which has never made any sense anyway outside of a late-night bull session in a freshman dorm.
Hatcher's version is unorthodox in that Hyde is not played by the same actor as Jekyll, but is traded around by four other cast members. At several points there's even a kind of Greek chorus of Hydes, portrayed by three of the actors, hissing malevolently.
Like most modern adaptations of the novella, this one introduces some women to Stevenson's all-male story, and they are thrillingly well-played by Meg Heimstead as Elizabeth Jelkes, a chambermaid perversely drawn to Hyde; and Roxanne Fay, who shape-shifts fluidly among multiple roles, including Poole, Jekyll's loyal assistant. Occasionally, the characters make anti-Scottish jibes, a witty little theme since Stevenson was a Scot.
Vladimir Nabokov, the great Russian novelist (Lolita), wrote a brilliant essay on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, comparing it with masterpieces like Bleak House and Madame Bovary, and he relished Stevenson's capacity to go "behind the Victorian veil.'' There's a suggestion of that in the freeFall staging, with delicious acting by John Lombardi and Gavin Hawk as proper London gentlemen, alarmed by their friend Jekyll's inexplicable behavior. Chris Jackson is totally scary as a very aggro Hyde.
Dialect coach Matt Lunsford did well by the English accents — posh for Jekyll and his cronies, Cockney for the working-class types — and the basic black (plus flashes of red) costumes by Davis, Sylvette Fay and Emilie Kuperman are sumptuous.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.