Jekyll and Hyde-ing in a closet.

Theatre Vertigo's fall chiller in the Shoebox Theatre gets deliciously intimate with evil.

Mr. Hyde (Heath Koerschgen) holds Elizabeth (Karen Wennstrom) in his evil thrall.

Mr. Hyde (Heath Koerschgen) holds Elizabeth (Karen Wennstrom) in his evil thrall.

Unfortunately, we can’t all be Dr. Jekyll.
Unfortunately, we CAN all be Mr. Hyde.

That’s one way to interpret Jeffrey Hatcher’s bold adaptation of the classic  Robert Louis Stevenson story.

In this version, rather than pitting the two main characters in a fair fight, one Jekyll confronts (count them) as many as six Hydes at a time. Sometimes they lurk, lunge, and sneer from the shadows; sometimes they rush the stage as a gang, each in a top hat, brandishing a cane. Sometimes there’s only one, an alpha Hyde that commands all the betas. And occasionally, a “respectable” character will stop mid-sentence, don a hat and crack into a sudden apparition of the fiend, just as abruptly doffing  hat and Hyde to resume business as usual. This is spooky to say the least. Hyde could be anywhere. Jekyll never knows.

Theatre Vertigo‘s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (like Artists Rep’s “Foxfinder“) is a sparse, expressionist Halloween holdover timed to scare the demons out of your system before the heartwarming holidays. It’s a welcome reminder of the rich monster-v-man discourse that informs modern (ahem) efforts like “Grimm,” and it’s Victorian detective delicacy is sure to tempt the same audiences who turned out for Artists Rep’s Sherlock Holmes/Christmas show these last three winters (2010-12).

“Jekyll and Hyde” is also Vertigo’s season-opener, and the company’s first staging in the Shoebox Theatre, a temporary home since its longer-term digs at Belmont’s Theatre! Theater! closed last spring. The name “Shoebox” rings true; the space is tiny, hardly more than a wide hallway with audience on both sides. Perhaps in this case, a constraint has proven a blessing.

Vertigo’s brand is consistently edgy and adventurous, but the company’s spatial discipline waxes and wanes. Last fall, “Mother Courage and Her Children” was deemed “impeccable,” but by spring, “Aloha, Say the Pretty Girls” was looking sloppy. Now in a space where missteps literally mean stepping on toes, Vertigo’s movement and timing is again on-point. They navigate the diciest of entrances and exits with ease, plus a series of magic-show-style misdirections and handoffs that bring multiple Hydes to life.

When they’re NOT personifying Jekyll’s murderous id, the various actors play the good doctor’s servant, colleagues, and solicitor. In their eloquent Victorian manner, they puzzle over the spectral monster in their midst, marveling at his grisly crimes. But they’re reluctant to name the doctor as a suspect until they absolutely have to. Here, again, they’ve risen to a major technical challenge: their various British accents, from Cockney to Scottish to Queen’s, are nearly perfect, rivaling if not outshining “Foxfinder.”

Heath Koerschgen’s role as the primary or alpha Hyde is dead opposite from his recent heroic turn as Marc Antony in Post5’s “Caesar.” Nevertheless, his face and voice are unflinchingly fiendish even under close scrutiny in the small space, his large size domineering the other characters, especially his lover Elizabeth (Karen Wennstrom) who keeps pace with her own credible expressions of humility and terror. Doctor Jekyll (Mario Calcagno) is less a foil to Hyde than a reluctant sidekick, complicit and defensive, sweating out his support despite growing concerns. For him, Hyde seems foremost a source of wonder, with horror on the side.

Amid all this staunch Victoriana, director Bobby Bermea can’t resist one pop horror motif: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” The eerie, echoey voice-over that gives the show’s opening warnings is a dead ringer for the one in Jackson’s horror record, even dissipating into the same evil laughter. The reference resurfaces when several Hydes perform synchronized spasms through green smoke and strobes, their movements jerky, regimented and asymmetrical like the King of Pop’s choreo. It’s a surprising device, especially in a small room, but amazingly manages to stay suspenseful, not silly.

Another risky move—coed cast playing nearly all male—also comes off without a hitch here thanks to Kerry Ryan and Brooke Calcagno’s studied habitation of masculine identity. As Utterson and Lanyon respectively, and dually as Hyde, their assumed male affectations aren’t the focus, but rather a natural byproduct of their characters’ presumption of authority. Act like you own and know everything while wearing a suit, and maleness is sufficiently implied. Unfortunate, perhaps, but they man up and leverage the device’s simplicity in their favor.

Is it my imagination, or are intermissions going out of style? “Jekyll and Hyde,” like “Foxfinder,” is around 90 minutes straight, no breaks. Both titles, however, have good reason: they need a captive audience to ratchet up the tension. There’s considerable disbelief to suspend in both shows’ premises…they can’t give us a moment to second-think. “Jekyll and Hyde” particularly, in its small space, gives the illusion of intimacy, like a single-file carnival ride or a “seven minutes in heaven” retreat into a dark party closet. Everybody knows that once you open the door, the spell is broken.

Overall, this “Jekyll and Hyde” is extremely deft, and even though the story’s familiar, the experience of seeing it here feels unique. It’s a chance to intimately reacquaint not only with Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterwork, but with a small company that seems to be tightening and energizing like a coiled copper spring. The Shoebox quickly becomes a full house, and this show rattles the room to its edges. Meanwhile, the many Hydes pose a chilling threat from all sides: will they kill, or corrupt you?

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury

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