Cucalorus rebranded their annual film festival last year to be an all-inclusive arts experience, featuring live stage performances and concerts, which saw itself fully fleshed out in 2018 with a lot of high-quality work. Among it was Opera House Theatre Company’s presentation of “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” from Blanket Fort Entertainment. It’s a two-person show adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson novella, featuring former Wilmington actress Anna Stromberg. Stromberg directs and performs in it with Burt Grinstead, who plays Jekyll and Hyde. To put it simply, Stromberg acts out every other character on stage—even a pretty stunning moment where she carries on two parts of a three-person conversation. Folks will be able to see it one last time, November 14-18, as they take it to Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street.
“Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” chronicles the journey of a young scientist, Dr. Jekyll (Grinstead), trying to isolate and understand what makes a person good or evil. We meet him at his home as he practices a speech before the mirror and his maid, Poole (Stromberg). They have a very close relationship for employer/employee, and there is a tenderness concern growing out in their early, fast interactions that is essential for what is to come. We learn Poole is a kind-hearted but honest and plain-spoken woman who wants to instill confidence in her employer, but also recognizes there is a limit to miracles in this world. Dr. Jekyll is just not a confident person. By modern standards, his self-absorption would border upon narcissism. Not that he is so impressed with himself, but rather he is so wrapped up inside his head he can’t actually express interest in anyone or anything.
In spite of such, his friend Utterson (Stromberg) still tries to draw Jekyll out and get him to engage in life. We watch poor, shy Dr. Jekyll attempt to request funding for a new experiment that would see if good and or evil can be isolated and triggered or suppressed in the human brain by utilizing ingested stimulants. Stromberg plays all the party guests who heckle him during his speech, including the powers that be at the university, and Sarah, the beautiful, vivacious young woman with romantic intentions toward the quiet scientist. Both performers wear all black: Grinstead in a tux, and Stromberg in ballet flats and a black ensemble. Each character Stromberg takes on has essentially one costume piece or prop to visually signal their arrival. So for Sarah it is a tiered crinoline and pink lighting. For Poole it is a white apron.
The transformation from Jekyll to Hyde has a specific set of physical ticks that occur, and then Mr. Hyde has a top hat. The majority of the difference is his bearing, his walk and his hands. Hyde exudes cruelty, earthiness, devil make care and privilege. It’s like a rock star has wandered in: He seems to have a license to do what he wants, provided he writes a big enough check to cover the damage. Both times Grinstead enters the house as Hyde to interact with the audience I had the terrible thrill of both truly fearing him and hoping he would stay far away, and secretly wishing and hoping he would come to me. Grinstead projects an amazing allure of earthy evilness that makes rock stars so desirable from afar. Yes, his transformation from Jekyll to Hyde is believable—like flesh tinglingly believable. But this show really is Stromberg’s showcase of range and ability—especially to create characters that are not just pretty, sexy women.
Face it, she is gorgeous. There is an obvious desire to cast Stromberg as the young love interest. A show like this gives her chance to shine a light on her real craft—distinctions she creates for the characters make the storytelling compelling and believable. The energy between the two performers makes the air tingle. It is the distinct characters that are the building blocks and make the climax and falling action believable. When Hyde attacks Sarah, and Jekyll wrestles with him for her release, the audience is with the performers every step of the way as they make a very complex scene completely breathe and pulse each moment. Following, when Jekyll manages to reclaim a tenuous grasp—just enough to ultimately destroy Hyde—a strained and desperate moment is so infused with emotion from both performers even if we could reach out and take the gun from him, we wouldn’t because we secretly know all along it is where Hyde was taking him. There is no doubt.
The modular adaptable set is pretty darn adorable. Though all black, there are a variety of little cubby holes that open to create a desk, a library space, a park, etc. It is obviously designed to travel easily but the thoughtfulness and attention to detail is just one physical manifestation of the two key ingredients in the piece. There is quite a difference in scale between the Thalian Hall main stage and the much more intimate space at Cape Fear Playhouse, but the set gives all indication of serving both well.
Stromberg is really one of our local success stories. Theatre-goers here were lucky to enjoy her talent for many years until she made the move to the West Coast (“The Crucible,” “Venus in Fur,” to name but two). To welcome her home and see her share a piece of work that gives us a glimpse into the skills she has honed to a sharp edge is possibly the best gift she could give her hometown audience. The success of “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” at the Hollywood Fringe Festival is driving it to New York for a two week run—part of the Fringe Encore Series (a “best of” Fringe from around the world), so get tickets quick to see it here first.
There is an inherent zaniness that comes from this kind of staging and requires rapid character shifts. But Stromberg and Grinstead manage to blend that energy with a deeper message about the darkness in the human mind that pays homage to Stevenson’s story, while infusing it with an earnest energy and determination. As a piece of theatre, it is fascinating, invigorating and challenging to the deepest parts of our very sense of self.