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City Theatre's season-opener isn't your father's Jekyll and Hyde -- but it might be your Goth best friend's. 

In staging a new version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Pittsburgh City Theatre tackles the story of man's double life, a formula that is the basis of virtually all superhero myths.

Yet in this reimagining of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, Hyde is not some antique super-villain. Rather, he's a brutal character capable of love who acts on impulse outside of the strict rules of fin de siècle British society. 

He also wears sunglasses.

In a rare period production for City, director Tracy Brigden infuses contemporary goth attire with its Victorian ancestor to create an anachronistic and stylish production. Along with his modern eyewear, for instance, Hyde sports wild, "Chopin-like" hair, while his love interest, Elizabeth, is clad in corsets and lace.

"In Victorian melodrama, you think everyone has a grey walrus mustache like Sherlock Holmes or Watson," says Brigden. 

The set is minimal, though it does feature the blood-red door that marks Hyde's abode. For the backdrop, the crew chopped up and re-arranged a replica of a Monet water lily -- now scrambled like Jekyll's tormented mind, which repeatedly succumbs to the depraved demands of Mr. Hyde.

In playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's new version of the horror classic, the title characters are quite ambiguous.

"Jekyll becomes less pleasant as Hyde becomes more human. I made it less black-and-white," says City Theater favorite Hatcher (Compleat Female Stage Beauty, The Missionary Position). "It's more interesting than to think of Jekyll and Hyde as 'I'm all bad' and 'I'm all good.' It's more of a synthesis." 

Hyde never really reaches the hero level, but through his relationship with Elizabeth (Melinda Helfrich), he becomes a violent, seductive, Byronic man. Like so many adaptations of Dracula since the Manson girls proved it possible to love a monster, in this Jekyll and Hyde, the beast becomes the seducer, liberating women from the constraints of Victorian society. And the proper Dr. Jekyll (David Whalen) is a bit of a drug addict.

"My vision is one that wants to play more on addictions and psychological dependence. It's in the original, but not brought out much," says Hatcher by phone from his Minneapolis office.

Jekyll's consumption of his potion has different consequences each time. Thus three actors and one actress alternately portray Hyde. Sometimes his brutal nature is forefronted, sometimes his sexuality.

The Hydes (Kelly Boulware, Martin Giles, Dan Krell and Sheila McKenna) speak with creepy Cockney accents. Sometimes several take the stage at once, giving commands like an internal devil.

But there is no angel to counter in this play. And the ominous music builds throughout to signify that the demon in Dr. Jekyll remains. The music is like a deeper, cello-heavy version of the Twilight Zone theme, the kind that builds suspense and makes you think someone is going to emerge from behind the curtain with a knife. 

But it's not that kind of play. 

The horror of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is psychological: the shocking realization that even the best of us can become monsters.

 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Sat., Oct. 24–Nov. 8. City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. $10-48. 412-431-CITY or www.citytheatrecompany.org

click to enlarge Kelly Boulware as Hyde, Melinda Helfrich as Elizabeth - SUELLEN FITZSIMMONS

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