|Richard Cohn-Lee, Lydia Fleming, and Eric Island|
By Tina Arth
For a couple more weeks, local audiences will have the opportunity to check out (and participate in) the unique staging of Experience Theatre Project’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as adapted by producing director Alisa Stewart. If you’ve never attended one of the Experience shows, be prepared (and forewarned) – it’s not for the kind of timid theater-goer who wants to sit back and watch from the anonymity of fixed seating, safely removed from the actors and the story. Instead, the audience is truly immersed in the action – they interact with the actors and move somewhat freely around the “stage” – a Wild West saloon setting (complete with fake whores, poker games, and a real working bar – a nice perk!) and a second space that serves as a dry goods store, a laboratory, the main street, even the great outdoors. There’s plenty of seating on benches and at tables, but you’ll need to be prepared to move when the performers need the space you’re occupying – best to wear comfortable shoes and travel light!
While the core of Robert Louis Stevenson’s original story is retained, moving it from Victorian London to the Wild West calls for significant alterations – and Stewart’s vision (be sure to read her director’s note) injects new characters, plot lines, and themes well beyond the change in locale. In the Experience version, Henry Jekyll is the trusted doctor in a bustling little frontier mining town. Many of the migrants have been lost to disease, including Jekyll’s wife and son, and the good doctor is grief-stricken about his inability to save them. After extensive experimentation, he perfects a potion that allows him to create a second persona, Mr. Hyde, in whom all of his negative emotions reside. Of course, as in Stevenson’s original tale, Dr. Jekyll is ultimately unable to control his dark and evil alter ego, and the fledgling town has to cope with a series of murders that bring terror and anguish to the locals by the story’s end.
The revised/expanded story line brings in new characters, and Experience found some solid performers to fill the roles. Erik Montague brings a winning, youthful impulsiveness to his portrayal of Hiram, a love-struck miner desperate to wed his lady, and the chemistry between Montague and Lydia Fleming (as his intended, Cecily) is charming and believable. Fleming is really quite wonderful in perhaps the most complex role – she does young love, dutiful daughter, abuse victim (pre-me-too by over a century), and twice grief-stricken with consummate skill and grace. Eric Island (as Cecily’s father Hastie, the town sheriff and owner of the general store) delivers another fine performance, and Adria Malcolm is thoroughly believable in the gender-bent role of lawyer Jane Utterson. There are several skin-crawling moments with the devious Reverend Danvers, played with unctuous virtuosity by Matt Ostrowski.
In the Experience Theatre Project adaptation, Jekyll’s role is still significant but by no means dominant. Richard Cohn-Lee finds the right touch, giving the role an almost nobly tragic tone in lieu of the decadence of Robert Louis Stephenson’s original vision for his subject. The entire ensemble, faced with the challenge of interacting directly with the audience, stays in character and cheerfully draws the spectators into the action whenever possible, especially during the pre-show and intermission periods.
Experience Theatre Project is unique among local groups in its quest to present “immersive, dynamic productions which engage the audience,” and the current offering definitely fulfills this mission. Both the actors and the audience are required to move just a bit out of their comfort zones, and the result is a meaningful experience for all.
Due to adult themes and language, this particular show is not appropriate for young audiences. The website cautions that patrons who plan to take full advantage of the beer and wine offered at the bar use public transit, grab a rideshare, or bring a designated driver.
Experience Theatre Project’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde plays at the Beaverton Masonic Lodge, 4690 SW Watson Avenue, through Sunday, February 16th with performances at 7:30 Fridays and Saturday, 2:00 pm on Sundays.