“Jekyll & Hyde”: Reason is the slave of the passions

The Synetic Theater is a DC troupe, mostly run by Georgian immigrants trained in the former Soviet Union, which does dance-based adaptations of literature. So they do wordless Shakespeare, for example, which I totally thought was on par with “jumbo shrimp” until I saw their phenomenal Midsummer Night’s Dream. They do a fair amount of horror. They’re always very OTT, sometimes to the point of kitsch (which I don’t mind), and they typically aim to give you a really intense new experience of the story rather than a new interpretation of its meaning. I think they’re one of the best things in DC’s already surprisingly-strong theater scene.

Their current show is Jekyll & Hyde and it is a trip. It has a steampunk aesthetic, but also big video screens, so it’s sort of a tech/time-period mashup. It’s fast–it plays like a rocket-sled to the depths of Hell–and it goes much further than the book in showing Hyde’s depravity and violence. This led my companion to say that she felt like the show was just wallowing in evil, and I can see that as a criticism. You really don’t get a sense of what goodness looks like, or what redemption would look like if Jekyll somehow managed to triumph over Hyde. I mean, one reductive way of thinking about the show is that there did come a moment when I had to step back and say to myself, “You know, I’ve never seen a man rape himself in a wedding dress before.” It’s art! Or maybe science!

But in fact, I was totally compelled and thoroughly frightened by this show. I thought it did what it intended. (My companion, by contrast, said she wasn’t scared so much as disgusted.) I thought Alex Mills, as J/H, really gave a powerful sense of how terrifying it is to feel completely out of one’s own control. The music works to create a fever of ecstasy, ekstasis, standing outside oneself–which the show of course presents as horror rather than rapture.

Even before he begins his transformations, Jekyll keeps human subjects in his laboratory. Apparently the program guide gives some kind of explanation for these people, who are in crazy crawling postures like the cavedwellers in The Descent and who wear gas masks and bondage-y strap-based costumes. I like them better unexplained, though. They serve a lot of thematic and allusive purposes: They suggest that Hyde represents the upwelling of Jekyll’s preexisting lust for power over others, rather than sex or violence, which makes his loss of control over himself much more Dantean; they’re able to turn the tables on J/H, as I alluded to in the headline of this post; there are a couple women there, so the show can play with a bit of horror sapphism, which I always appreciate even though I admit it’s often a fairly homophobic trope; they play into fears of scientist as replacement God, the Frankenstein touch. And they are just so creepy.

So apparently this show is really not for everyone. I thought it was horrific and it created a lot of memorable images of fragmenting identity, which is pretty much all I asked it to do.

About Eve Tushnet

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