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'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' as adapted by ATC rivetingly makes us all complicit in evil

Most adaptations of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde diminish Robert Louis Stevenson's moral fable to a mere horror story; indeed, when the characters are appropriated in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hyde is indistinguishable from the Incredible Hulk.

Arizona Theatre Company has commissioned a new stage adaptation of the story from playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, and although Hatcher plays fast and loose with Stephenson's plot and characters, his treatment is admirably true to Stephenson's serious intentions. It's also riveting theater.

Everyone knows the basic concept: Dr. Henry Jekyll is an English physician who concocts a potion that will separate his evil nature from his goodness, and the evil manifests itself as a personality called Edward Hyde. Jekyll remains an upstanding member of Victorian society while Hyde indulges in all manner of reprehensible activities, including murder.

In the Stephenson story, it's through the Hyde personality that Jekyll can commit whatever perverse act he wants without having to feel the slightest shame or guilt. Hatcher's version of Jekyll is more high-minded; his initial aim is to distill the evil aspects of human nature and somehow eliminate them, leaving only the good behind. Stephenson's Jekyll and Hyde represent the duality of human character, good versus evil, white versus black. Hatcher's treatment of the characters is more complex; at best, the white is tinged with gray. And by the end, Hyde's blackness admits a streak of white.

In Hatcher's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, one actor plays Jekyll; one actress plays a love interest of Hatcher's invention; and four other performers portray a number of other characters, including various incarnations of Hyde. Spreading Hyde among several actors makes it clear that there's a bit of evil in everyone; even costume designer Anna Oliver's decision to echo the yellow of Hyde's cape lining in the shawl of the love interest makes interesting, unexpected connections.

While Hatcher revamps the moral and philosophical implications of the original story, he also introduces two significant new characters. Elizabeth Jelkes is a chambermaid who is drawn to Hyde despite and because of his sensual, predatory and sadistic nature; she's also the reason Hyde ultimately finds some faint trace of goodness within himself. Sir Danvers Carew appears in the original story, but he's quite a different person in Hatcher's stage version; Stephenson makes him nothing more than a kindly victim, while Hatcher transforms him into a real antagonist for Jekyll.

Hatcher also makes many changes to Stephenson's architecture in order to create something viably theatrical. Stephenson's original story is full of digressions, retracings, journal entries and explanatory documents; Hatcher borrows just enough of this to evoke the Victorian nature of storytelling while keeping the plot moving fluidly. As the characters declare to the audience in the very first scene, this is a tale pieced together from disparate individual observations, and Hatcher links all the elements with a sure hand.

R. Hamilton Wright, for once assuming a serious role at ATC, plays Jekyll initially as an indignant moralist, but a humane one--a man who sees morality springing from the best within us, rather than from unscientific ideas imposed upon us. Wright charts Jekyll's own moral decay very gradually and convincingly, and brings remarkable intensity to his final scenes.

More often than not, it's Mark Anderson Phillips playing Hyde, and he's suitably vicious and hateful--and also darkly, dangerously attractive. Director David Ira Goldstein doesn't have a subtle touch, and his taste for all-out melodrama means that Phillips must play Hyde as part snarling cur, part Quasimodo, yet the character's ultimate moral quandary is not only believable, but moving.

Anna Bullard plays Elizabeth with real backbone beneath the fear and anguish, and Ken Ruta is wonderfully wry and stalwart as Utterson, effectively the story's narrator. Stephen D'Ambrose delineates a number of characters with such attention to changes of voice and gesture that one forgets it's a single actor taking all those parts. Carrie Paff is appropriately stiff and impassive as Jekyll's servant--exactly what she needs to be in such a role--and a dangerous, leering presence in her turns as Hyde, like something out of German Expressionism.

All of this plays out on Kent Dorsey's dark, wood-grain set, which serves equally well as a Victorian gentleman's quarters and a surgical theater, while Roberta Carlson's score creates just the right atmosphere without resorting to clichés.

This treatment of Stephenson's story does exactly what it must: It makes us all complicit in Hyde's activities. As a witness to one of Hyde's most brutal crimes says, she wanted to call for help, but "the bad in me wanted to watch."

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