Sunday, May 29, 2016

"Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde"

Robert Louis Stevenson:  Jekyll and Hyde
Gary Graves

Brian Herndon as Lewis & Danielle Levin as Fanny
With labored breathing behind a black, leather mask and through thick, green-glassed goggles, a reclining, night-gowned man wrapped in knitted blanket writes furiously on his lap desk.  Stripping off the 19th-century respirator and goggles, in socked feet and gown he dons a top hat, black cape, and wooden cane and strikes a number of frozen poses in front of an unseen mirror, ending in a fury-filled attack on some unseen victim.  A coughing fit sends him to a desk whitened by an unknown powder where he mixes a packet of the white stuff with a glass of wine, drinking it in a mad gulp.  Could this be the same man who has made his fame writing children’s adventure tales like Treasure Island or Kidnapped or a collection of poetry entitled A Child’s Garden of Verses?  What is he writing with such crazed yet excited looks?  All is about to become clear as Central Works of Berkeley presents its 51st world premiere, Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde, written by company co-director, Gary Graves. 

The ailing Stevenson is feverish not just from his pulmonary issues but more so from the dark, devilish story building inside him and yearning to be told.  His wife, Fanny, also a writer, is near exhaustion worrying about him and their near-poverty status; and she is totally exasperated because he keeps throwing finished drafts of completed novels into the fireplace that he now feels are no good.  Louis rails that he wants to leave pirates and swashbucklers behind and instead to create “great art, the truth of it.”  Fanny just wants him to write a “good entertaining yarn” that will sell to his loyal public so that she can pay the rent and the butcher.  He wildly exclaims that “a different kind of story” has come to him in his dreams, through “me brownies ... little creatures in me that spin the stuff of me dreams ... like me loving slaves while I sleep.”  Fanny sees writing as a rationale process, not a dream; and as she listens to the outline of his Jekyll and Hyde story, she bemoans, “We’ll be ruined” while he counters, “We’ll be rich.”

Louis convinces Fanny to listen to the story emerging from somewhere deep inside him about the respected surgeon, Dr. Henry Jekyll, and the other side of his Janus-personality, Edward Hyde, who bursts forward to live the sordid, sex-and-death-filled life Jekyll dares not.  Brian Herndon is mesmerizing and frightening to watch as his paces in circles spilling his tale, hands manically grasping in the air, body jerking one direction and then the next, and eyes almost popping from their sockets.  As the horrid but engrossing tale progresses, he acts out the transformation, downing more and more of his own cocaine-Bordeaux concoction just as Jekyll gulps his catalytic chemicals.  Before a now frightened Fanny, he rolls on the floor, screaming as if in wracked pain, and then rising as Hyde in the making, snarling and grabbing his cane as a weapon for the next, invisible victim. 

Danielle Levin & Brian Herndon
With a wonderful combination of visible curiosity, skepticism, disgust, and fear, Danielle Levin as Fanny watches and listens with increased acuteness.  Her half-opened mouth, at times shaped in total wonder and then in complete worry, finally utters her fear and judgment, “He’s a monster ... I see it coming ... I don’t like it.”  The marital brawl that ensues becomes entangled in the story itself, and the alarm in Fanny’s eyes and her cowering in the corner prove that she, like us, is not sure at times if it is Louis or Hyde before her and if he recognizes her as Fanny or a random woman on some London street. 

The boundaries between reality and fiction are increasingly blurred by the narrating, now-thoroughly-drugged author.  Fanny becomes ever more delirious herself as Louis mentions his own hated father as one of the victims, as he claws a door with his humping body screaming “The fellows, the fellows, I can feel you in me, in you,” and as he introduces to his story a little girl alone in the street.  The latter child is too near in age to their own dead daughter for Fanny to bear.  With a look of sheer terror and total revulsion, she finally screams, “God, I want out ... Let me out” as Danielle Levin brings to near climax a stunning performance of someone at times as much in contrast to her husband as Jekyll is to Hyde.

The intensity of the fine acting is greatly enhanced in the small, drawing room setting of the theatre by outstanding direction, lighting, and sound.  Jan Zvaifler orchestrates a pace that alternates between frenetic chases full of craze and silent pauses of collapsed exhaustion.  Through her and the actors’ deft craft, they and we often lose sight of what is real and is what part of the related tale. 

Shadows against walls and changing moods of light play a big part in our anticipating something dire might happen at any minute of the play’s eighty, thanks to the lighting design of playwright Gary Graves.  And all around the small arena surrounded on three sides by the audience, Gregory Sharpen’s designed sound effects echo both from Louis’s tale in rainy, cobblestoned London and from the Stevenson’s current old, English house and south coast environs.  Tammy Berlin’s costumes and Debbie Shelley’s properties add the finishing touches to give this 1885 setting authentic feel.

Taking aspects of a story related how Stevenson wrote his first draft of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in only three, fever-filled days and how he burned in rage the first draft after his wife hated it, Gary Graves has dug under the covers to imagine what really happened as Robert Louis Stevenson allowed his dream to come to life before his Fanny.  Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde is the fascinating result, so ably produced and performed by Central Works. 

Rating: 4 E

Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde continues through June 12, 2016, performed in world premiere by Central Works at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at (510) 558-1381.

Photo Credit: J. Norrena

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