As you make your way down the single, storied aisle at the Soho Playhouse on Vandam Street, having passed the gleaming posters of past productions cluttering the space above the staircase—the ghosts inside these frames embodying everything down to the ancient seat cushions—you are greeted by the sound of cawing crows and the silhouette of a dark, waist-level London skyline. You suspect you’ve been here before. Inside the Playhouse, to be sure. But you also have a memory of every horror film or novel in which you have inserted yourself as a gawking, fearful intruder. And in particular, you know you have seen, read or heard many times the story you are about to see. The one about the evil Mr. Hyde and his virtuous progenitor, Dr. Jekyll—and you also know the tale has resonated with you because, well, is there anything more basic, more elemental, than our mordant, binary musings on the nature of good and bad?
Not that you need a prerequisite course in horror esthetics to enjoy what’s happening right now at the Playhouse. Anna Stromberg and Burt Grinstead, the writers and the entire cast of this new, bare-boned, ingenious production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, have invented a show that simultaneously parodies and finds the inherent drama in this tragic, cautionary tale. Using bold, minimalist but instantly comprehensible production values and staging, Grinstead and Stromberg mine the story equally for its foundational absurdities: obvious, if fertile ground for either pathos and satire. But the rhythms, dialogue, and characterizations in this Jekyll and Hyde are dynamically and exuberantly jumbled. Farcical tones comfortably coexist alongside those which have a more somber bent. And you find yourself, during the show’s best moments, thrillingly aware that it is pulling off a kind of theatrical double-helix. It’s twin-toned identity is as forceful and compelling as the story’s own obsession with a pair of starkly opposite protagonists (living inside the same person, of course).
The contributions that Stromberg and Grinstead have made to Jekyll and Hyde seem to further layer the show’s DNA: they are as perfectly meshed as they seem to be individual and self-contained. You marvel at the string of characters Stromberg presents—she plays all the characters in the show that are not Jekyll or Hyde, often at lightning speed. Assisted only by stray costume pieces—like a police officer’s hat and mutton chops, a maid’s apron, or the ruffled skirt of an ingenue—Stromberg seems to effortlessly inhabit the denizens of the universe she and Grinstead have created. And she never disappoints: she is a natural, and preternaturally gifted, performer.
Grinstead seemed to be suffering from a throat cold at the show I saw–but oh, how his voice deepened to such a delightfully murderous rasp during his turns as Hyde. This winning actor, on command and at every necessary beat, created distinctly different versions of the patient, timorous doctor and the vile Jekyll, who seems to carry an odor of “wet animal” about him. Grinstead takes on an almost superhuman, hyper-athletic aspect as he goes leaping out into the audience and back up on stage in his new-found expression of Jekyll’s formerly pent-up but now surging passions.
The show lapses a bit during a couple sections that manifest a more uniform texture or continuity, at least when compared to the show’s mostly raucous or disorderly approach. In one scene, Stromberg probably bounces up and down one too many times behind a set piece while incarnating various doctors and their wives. And Grinstead’s earnest speech to his students about his life’s work seems necessary as an antidote to the dominant emotional moods straining through the production but doesn’t quite find its footing.
Still, Stromberg and Grinstead are a pair to watch. (I could do so, again and again.) And not least because, in addition to writing and acting, Stromberg directed and Grinstead did the sound design. Both of these contributions are critical to Jekyll and Hyde. The show’s Hollywood Fringe Festival heritage almost demands that it create as full and forceful a theatrical life with as few production values as possible. This team has wondrously obliged. Along with the elegantly sharp and moody lighting scheme (Carter Ford), Stromberg and Grinstead have created a vibrantly minimalist production. Grinstead’s sound design (in particular, its peeling musical tones and selective, immersive sound effects) generates a sense of history and belonging. Stromberg’s direction presents a kind of radical 19th-century, bustling world in as few rhythmic, choreographed steps and material parts as possible.
Best of all, the scenes in which Jekyll morphs into Hyde are accomplished as an almost anti-cinematic—and solely theatrical—construct. They are achieved through strictly bravura acting and direction, the darting soundscape, quick lighting, and the exchange of those ever-efficient costume pieces. It makes you think Grinstead and Stromberg’s intention all along was to best those old Playhouse ghosts by creating a little supernatural mischief of their own.
By Burt Grinstead & Anna Stromberg; Directed by Anna Stromberg; with Burt Grinstead & Anna Stromberg; Lighting Design: Carter Ford; Sound Design: Burt Grinstead; Stage Manager: Carter Ford. Now playing through May 26 at the Soho Playhouse, 15 Van Dam Street. Box Office Hours: 5:30pm-10:30pm (Tuesday – Sunday). Also for tickets, contact Boxoffice@sohoplayhouse.com, call (212) 691-1555, or go here.
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