Dr. Jekyll and a Gang of Hydes :: Ben Evett on Stoneham Theatre’s Production of a Horror Classic
As soon as Robert Louis Stevenson published "Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" in 1886, the novella captured the public imagination and became a best selling novella. The story remains a classic today, thanks in part to its film incarnations and the influence the story has had on literature of all sorts.
"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," as it is more popularly known, has arguably been an inspiration for everything from comic books to television and movies, and it’s easy to see why; it is the classic tale of how good and evil intertwine in the human psyche. As such, it is also an insightful work on the risks of trying to eradicate or separate those elements -- not bad for a story that began as a nightmare and then was composed in a burst of furious writing that might, or might not, have included an episode in which the original manuscript was torched by Stevenson himself before being entirely (and just as feverishly) re-written.
But before "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" became a staple of film and television entertainment, it came to the stage. Indeed, the story was adapted to the stage with terrific speed, with productions across Britain and America taking place before the publication saw its first anniversary.
Jeffrey Hatcher’s 2008 adaptation offers new twists on the classic tale. Stoneham Theatre will present Hatcher’s play in time for Halloween, with a run scheduled to last from Oct. 24 - Nov. 10. EDGE had the pleasure of catching up with the production’s star, Benjamin Evett, who is slated to play Dr. Jekyll -- but, interestingly enough, not Mr. Hyde.
Evett explained this counterintuitive casting choice, along with providing some deep background and context for the story.
" ’Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ is considered a horror classic, certainly from the film era -- ’Dracula,’ ’Frankenstein,’ ’Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ and ’The Wolfman’ are the big four as far as horror movies go," Evett noted. "The difference being that Dracula and the Wolfman are actual monsters -- ’Frankenstein’ and ’Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ have more to do with the horrors that science can produce. But where ’Frankenstein’ is physical, ’Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ is all psychological.
"This production is, similarly, more of a psychological thriller than a monster show," the longtime Boston-area actor and writer continued. "Hyde is a man" rather than a monster, and as such, "he’s a man who does terrible things."
Does this constitute a warning of explicit violence?
"Certainly, there are some rather ghoulish events that are described, though not necessarily presented," Evett said. "There’s a lot left to the imagination, but not a lot of blood and gore show on the stage.
"The other thing that’s interesting about this as far as Halloween goes it that this is one of those holidays where things are inverted: Where the dark side of human nature is celebrated and released out onto the streets for a short period of time," Evett continued. "What this story is about is our darker nature, which, in an attempt through science to isolate and control it, he manifests in solid form in the character of Mr. Hyde, who is free to do all sorts of terrible things.
"Now, this version of the play takes that a little further. This Hyde represents our unchecked desires, but there are positive elements to him as well, and that’s one of the interesting things that this version looks into."
So -- what about this innovation of having different actors portray Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? And not just two different actors, one for each element of the main character’s dueling good and evil sides, but multiple actors taking on the role of Mr. Hyde? And is it indeed true that Evett won’t portray Hyde at all in this production?
"I do not play Hyde ever," Evett confirmed. "That’s a really interesting thing, and one of the things that drew me to the piece in the first place. "
This creative decision may seem a departure, but in fact, it’s truer to the source material than you might initially think.
"In the novella, they are completely different people," Evett pointed out. "They look different, they speak differently. Jeffry Hatcher, the playwright, has made it so that Jekyll really is a unique individual, and Hyde is represented by four other members of the ensemble, as different aspects [of the character] and at different points [in the play], and slightly different relationships with the other characters and with the world."
Moreover, Evett added, "There are certain Hydes who display certain characteristics. There are two things that I think are really interesting about this -- one is that it follows the development of Hyde as going from merely a bundle of rage and desire [and developing more fully as a person in his own right], particularly as he begins a relationship with a young woman, played by Esme Allen. The character actually evolves, and it’s very interesting how that happens.
"Together with that, Jekyll becomes more and more bounded by the actions of his alter-ego; he begins to lose control. He is the admired and respected scientist, he’s the generous, good man; but as Hyde begins to assert his independence, Jekyll begins to lose control. It’s interesting to see, at the end, which of them comes across as the villain."
Evett described how he came to be involved with the production, saying, "I saw that they were doing it, it looked interesting, and so I contacted Weylin [Symes, Producing Artistic Director at Stoneham Theatre] and [director] Caitlin [Lowans], and said I’d be really interested in talking about it. I came in for it, and it all worked out.
"I’ve been anxious to work up there for a long time," the actor continued. "I really like what they’re doing, and respect the work that’s being done up there. I think they’ve really established something, and they’re doing some interesting stuff. This seemed like a good opportunity to work with them."
Evett is by no means a stranger to the horror genre, having co-written, co-produced, and starred in "Blood Rose Rising," a unique venture that sought to create a series of productions that would serve as serialized "episodes" to a longer-form work -- a stage equivalent to a TV series, though with multimedia components like magic tricks and live music, all combining into a cabaret Goth rock entertainment. The storyline concerned a haunted family manse and a young man, heir to the haunted house and scion to a lineage that had kept a closely-guarded and horrific secret. That project enjoyed only three episodes, however.
"Sadly, we were not able to keep the show running," Evett recounted. "It was disappointing, We weren’t able to break through and attract enough of an audience to be able to keep the lights on, so unfortunately we had to close early."
Such are the vagaries of the business, with practical realities all too often clashing with (or canceling out) artistic visions. Still, Evett thrives in the Boston theater scene.
"This is an interesting year for me," the actor related. "I feel like I am entering new territory a lot, with this show at Stoneham, this nice ensemble piece we’re doing and this role. I go right from that to do my first musical in many years! I’m playing Arthur at New Rep in ’Camelot,’ which I feel many people would view as a departure for me."
Proclaiming his excitement at the upcoming project, Evett recalled, "I did a few musicals when I was with A.R.T., musical adaptations of ’Lysistrata’ and that sort of thing, so this is my first classic musical in a very long time.
"I am also, actually, in the middle of working on a solo performance piece I’m co-writing with a California-based playwright, Matthew Spangler, the guy who did the adaptation of ’The Kite Runner’ that they did at the New Rep.," Evett revealed. "The solo piece is based on ’The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ which we hope to produce in the next year or two.
"There was a time when I was going to be involved in that production [of ’The Kite Runner’] and then I had to drop out of the production because of another opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, which I think worked out really well for everybody." Evett went on to say. "Matthew and I became good friends, and I really admire his writing, so when I had the idea for doing this, I came to him."
Psychological horror, ghost stories, musicals, solo shows based on the 1798 epic poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Evett, it seems, has more aspects and facets than... well, you know.
’Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ plays Oct. 24 - Nov. 10 at Stoneham Theatre, located at 395 Main Street in Stoneham, MA.