Bruce Turk as a deceptively calm Henry Jekyll in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Photo by Aaron Rumley
With a minimalist set, few props and four actors playing one character, there had to be an even chance that North Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” would be more talky than terrifying.
Phew. Sigh of relief.
Owing to a clever script by Jeffrey Hatcher and inspired direction by Shana Wride, this dramatization of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” proves that a cracking good tale can be told any number of ways and that a lavish Victorian backdrop and visceral special effects are by no means necessary to do so.
The first act, which establishes characters as first acts do, runs long and indeed relies on an expository narrative. But once the physicality of the piece takes hold as it does with a vengeance in the second act, this “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is very much in the spirit of the Halloween season and even gruesome in a PG-13 sort of way.
This is the kind of show that North Coast Rep customarily produces very well, and it relies on talents familiar to its audiences. Wride is directing here for the first time, but has been a frequent performer in Solana Beach. Of the six-person cast, only Conner Marx, whose extensive television credits include the NBC doctor series “New Amsterdam,” is new to North Coast.
Bruce Turk, playing the tortured Henry Jekyll, carries the load here as he should, but Marx is a deliciously villainous counterpart as the Mr. Hyde that comes out when the doctor downs his terrible potion. Having two actors in this schizophrenic character avoids the logistical challenge of one performer having to shape-shift and disguise himself over and over.
Hatcher’s adaptation goes a step further: four actors get to variously play Mr. Hyde during the storytelling: Besides Marx, Jacob Bruce, Katie MacNichol and Christopher M. Williams. They’re even “choreographed” together here and there, heightening the anxiety that Dr. Jekyll’s murderous alter-ego is closing in on him.
The beguiling Ciarra Stroud completes the cast as hotel chambermaid Elizabeth Jelkes, a character not in Stevenson’s novella, who inexplicably falls for Mr. Hyde. Why, Elizabeth? Why?
Director Wride ensures – once again, especially in Act Two – that the melodrama keeps moving, while both the stage lighting (by Matthew Novotny and Erik Montierth) and sound design (Melanie Chen Cole) facilitate a grim, spooky and desperate atmosphere.
It may not seem like a big deal to audiences, but I’m picky about American actors essaying British accents. Bravo to dialect coach Emmelyn Thayer and to the cast for bringing this off without distraction.
While this is a bloodless “Jekyll and Hyde” it’s not without frights -- the bludgeoning in silhouette of one of Mr. Hyde’s victims, to name one; the fierce strangling of another, to name two. Like any effective horror story, what you don’t see is what’s often the scariest.
A final laurel is due Turk, whose mentally deteriorating Henry Jekyll never completely loses sympathy even though we know the awful depths of which his “other side” is capable. It’s a chilling and tragic performance.
“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” runs through Nov. 12 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.