Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Idle Muse Theatre Company
Review by Christine M. Malcom

Brandi Jiminez Lee and Jack Sharkey
Photo by Steven Townshend
For its Fall 2022 production, Idle Muse Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of ensemble member Michael Dalberg's adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Morgan Manasa. The unnerving show benefits from an overall excellent design and a very strong cast, both of which leave the audience wishing that the text of the adaptation and the direction were clear enough not to detract from them.

A number of the choices that Dalberg makes in his adaptation are intriguing, beginning with the fact that Henri Jekyll is a woman rightly frustrated with the restrictions she is forced to live under in Victorian England. The creation (or manifestation) of a licentious masculine alter ego who can walk in the world lends the story purpose more compelling than the mad science motivations in Robert Louis Stevenson's original story.

Similarly, Dalberg knits the characters, who are mere acquaintances or estranged friends in the original, into a tighter, more intimate, and more emotionally charged web. Utterson is no longer simply Jekyll's lawyer but her love interest, and Hastie Lanyon is not simply Jekyll's intellectual foil; rather, the two are entangled in a dark history with Danvers Carew, the Member of Parliament whose murder by Hyde is transformed from a simple sign of Jekyll's uncontrollable descent into depravity into something more complicated and ethically ambiguous.

Ultimately, though, the motivation behind and meaning of Danvers' murder is just one of many things that seem to be too complicated for the production to convey clearly in its two-hour running time. Dalberg adds Jekyll's father as Hyde's first victim, dead from a presumed accidental fall before the play starts, to tie the two together, but most of the revelations about Lanyon's sexual exploitation by Danvers and Jekyll's abuse by her father are timed too oddly and handled too briefly to add the seemingly intended interest. In the latter case, the eleventh hour revelation of paternal abuse also somewhat undercuts the impact of Jekyll being a woman by piling on, as though disregard for her intellectual and professional movements, as well as her loss of freedom of movement (another element that is not clearly explained), would be insufficiently serious motives to drive her to creating Hyde.

There are other points of confusion and seemingly dropped threads throughout. Although Stevenson's original, retrospectively narrated story takes place over the course of more than a year, here, the timeframe seems to be the days surrounding Danvers' murder, but it is not clear whether it has been weeks or months since the murder of Henri's father. Enfield, upon first encountering Utterson and (briefly) Hyde at the beginning of the play, and again at the scene of Danvers' murder, seems to be a philandering police detective who never investigates the murder, even after finding Jekyll's father's cane at the latter's murder scene.

The most unfortunate lack of clarity centers around the title characters themselves. Dalberg's intentions for the relationship between them is never successfully communicated. At times, it seems the adaptation departs from the traditional bodily transformation of one into the other to imply that both simultaneously manifest in the physical world; at others, it seems clear that the other characters see a single physical form, even when the audience can see and hear both aspects of the psyche. In the play's climax, Utterson breaks through a locked door and seems to directly address Hyde, asking where Jekyll is. Not long after, however, he seems oblivious to Hyde's physical participation in Jekyll's sexual advances and completely disregards Hyde's presence as Jekyll takes her own life.

The fact that the shortcomings in the text and the ways in which the direction never quite overcomes them are frustrating is, paradoxically, a testament to the strengths in other aspects of the production. Stina Taylor's set is attractive and functional. Through the use of a pair of rotating flats and just a few pieces of furniture, Taylor distinguishes the exterior action on the streets from the scenes that take place inside the homes of Jekyll and Lanyon. Furthermore, with the help of Laura J. Wiley's lighting design, Taylor communicates the sinister possibilities beneath each claustrophobic interior space.

Jessie Gowens' costumes add to the striking, successful visuals. Henri's polished, respectable garments have masculine touches as she beats back Hyde, receives Utterson and Lanyon as visitors, and makes one last desperate bid to show everyone at the university from which she has been banned that she is in control of her own destiny. In one brief scene, we see her in a plainer skirt and blouse that has more traditionally feminine lines, suggesting that when she has her sleeves rolled up and is working, she won't take the time to perform any particular identity. Hyde's patterned, textured trousers, as well as his calf-length coat with its double row of buttons combine a Wilde-adjacent foppishness with a touch of military potential for violence. Utterson's period-correct suit, just as (intentionally) forgettable as Carew's, is not, with its loud vest that provides an echo of Hyde's debauchery.

The sound/music design by L. J. Luthringer is not quite as successful as these other elements. At the beginning and the end of the play, what sounds like a scratchy (and out-of-period) radio announcer talks about the Ripper murders (which did bring to mind Stevenson's story when they first began, two years after its first publication), but rather than adding to the atmosphere, this simply amplifies the confusion, as it is unclear at the end if Utterson and Enfield conspire to attribute Henri's death to the Ripper. The between-scene music is synth-heavy rock that is overly loud in the small black box space and jarringly out of sync with the otherwise period-true choices.

Brandi Jiminez Lee (Jekyll) and Jack Sharkey (Hyde) are excellent both individually and together. Jiminez Lee does a wonderful job of moving the character fluidly through internalized repression and into rage-fueled desire for liberation through a series of dramatic choices that avoid whipsawing from one to the other. Her performance is so nuanced and well done that one really wishes for a clearer text than did not (perhaps inadvertently) impart almost all of the character's sexual impulses to her creation. It's reductive to say that Sharkey is simply having a tremendous amount of fun. His performance has more depth than that, but the fun he's having is tremendously appealing.

Shane Richlen has a bit of a thankless task as Utterson. The story in both its print and staged forms needs the character who provides exposition to the audience by taking things at face value, asking what others consider to be stupid questions, and so on. Here, some of that dialogue becomes intrusive without being sufficiently enlightening. Richlen does manage to transcend this at a number of points, though near the end, when Jekyll accuses him of being complicit in shielding Carew, there simply isn't time for any actor to convey whether this is true, a product of her delusions, or if the audience is intentionally left to wonder.

In the supporting roles of Lanyon and Carew, Joel Thompson and Ross Compton, respectively, shed light on the other characters through their distinct depictions of Victorian masculinity. As Lanyon, Thompson is believably tortured by a past he himself struggles to make sense of, an identity his society has no place for. His scenes opposite Jiminez Lee are among the play's most emotionally successful as the two argue over the meaning of consent under the oppressive circumstances under which they both live. Compton, who usually understudies the role, does strong work opposite Sharkey heightening the tension of the scene before his murder by inviting the question of who, if anyone, deserves Hyde's brutality.

As the Maid, Hanna Beth Mitchell provides capable comic relief without lapsing into caricature. As Enfield, Ian Saderholm plays a more innocuous, overtly sexual character whose place in the story is not exactly clear. Although Saderholm is good, one wonders if one character fewer might have afforded time and space to deepen the stories of others and render them more clear.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde runs through October 23, 2022, at The Edge Off-Broadway Theater, 11333 W. Catalpa, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, call 773-340-9438 or visit