Designing Jekyll and Hyde

by Karin Maresh

City Theatre is opening its 2009-2010 season with a bang!  Artistic Director Tracy Brigden has chosen to start the year off with a production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a play she describes as giving audience members the delicious satisfaction of seeing a story we know well.  Audiences already familiar with how the story ends find satisfaction in seeing the story played out before them, and knowing, for example, when Dr. Jekyll is lying.  We are also most certainly drawn to the play’s theme of duality, of the conflict between good and evil, of love and violence that is present in all of us.

One of the reasons Brigden says she chose the play is because it is unlike most contemporary plays in that it is a relatively new piece with a period, or historical, setting – Victorian London.  It isn’t often that City Theatre has an opportunity to produce a play that requires period costume pieces, such as corsets and top hats.  The play’s quick scenes and use of multiple settings (twenty-one to be exact) also provided all involved with a challenge they relished – how to keep the play from coming to a halt between scenes.  To solve this problem, scenic designer Tony Ferrieri has kept everything on stage to a bare minimum, so that a gurney is used to represent an operating room and a single table represents an office.  There has necessarily been no attempt to create a naturalistic setting.  Since the scenic needs of the text are similar to those of a Shakespeare play, Ferrieri has designed a space that can be transformed quickly and easily into multiple environments.  The lighting design by Christian DeAngelis will aid in this by using lights to isolate areas of the stage for different scenes.  Costume designer Susan Tsu has faced a challenge of her own in finding ways to differentiate between the twenty-one different characters in the play, all of whom are played by only six actors.  Since several of the actors play multiple roles, including four actors who take on the role of Mr. Hyde, Susan has designed a base costume for each that can be interpreted in more than one way, or altered slightly with the addition of accessories.

The industrialized look of London in the late nineteenth century has influenced all of the design elements for the production.  A steel walkway suspended over the stage and a spiral staircase figure prominently in the scenic design, as does the floor of the stage which will be painted to represent damp, wet cobblestones.  Lighting from DeAngelis will create long shadows, hard angles, and a haze in the air reminiscent of film noir (think Double Indemnity or Touch of Evil) that, when put together with the walls of Ferrieri’s set will give the space a cold, claustrophobic feeling.  Amidst all of the darkness on stage and in the text are splashes of color.  Hatcher’s Hyde is pure passion, capable of extreme violence and sexual love, a quality represented in a single red door on the stage.  It is a doorway into the mind of Jekyll and his inner demon, Hyde, but also, as Ferrieri believes, a representation of the passion that runs through all people.  Color also finds its way into the stage picture in bottles suspended over the stage during the laboratory scenes and bits of reds and purples on the mostly black and grey costumes.

The inspiration for the look of the production has emerged primarily from two sources: Monet’s Waterloo Bridge paintings, and the Goth movement, specifically Steampunk Goth, which Tsu considers to be more romantic than other subsets of Goth and, thus, more relevant to the romance and passion in Jekyll and Hyde.  In fact, Tsu has capitalized on the similarities between the Victorian clothing represented in the daguerreotypes and photographs she researched for the production and contemporary Goth clothing, as well as contemporary fashion designers, resulting in costumes that are hybrids of the two periods.  Brigden suggests that this will make the period costumes seem more real and less distanced from our twenty-first-century world.  The Monet painting, with its depiction of an industrial, yet romanticized nineteenth-century London, provided Tsu, DeAngelis, and Ferrieri with their color palate of cool colors – blues, greens, and purples – for their designs and much more.  The arches of the bridge in Monet’s painting, for example, have made their way into the steel walkway above the stage, and fragmented images of the painting itself serve as part of the set’s backdrop in order to visually reflect the multiplicity of the human brain suggested by the play.  For DeAngelis, movies pertaining to killers, such as old Sherlock Holmes films and From Hell, a 2001 film about Jack the Ripper, also served as sources of inspiration for his lighting design.

City Theatre audiences may remember playwright Jeffrey Hatcher for plays such as Compleat Female Stage Beauty and Murderers.  With Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he has crafted an original and very theatrical approach to a classic story of love and horror.  That and the design and directorial team’s concepts for the production will undoubtedly provide audiences with a fresh and creative take on the Robert Louis Stevenson Gothic novella.

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