Theatre Berk’s Professor Jekyll and Miss Hyde stars a cast of ferociously fascinating characters, but we don’t hear them at the start of the play. Instead, we hear Dr. Christine Blasey Ford during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh—her voice shaking as she recalls him sexually assaulting her in high school—and Kavanaugh’s wrathful defense.
It’s a bold beginning—and a declaration that Professor Jekyll and Miss Hyde will borrow from both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde author Robert Louis Stevenson and Me Too movement founder Tarana Burke. Unlike Burke, however, professor Mary Jekyll (Kate Faye Cummings) believes that words are useless against sex offenders. She prefers to use a knife.
By adapting Stevenson’s story for the 21st century and transporting it to a college campus, playwright William Thomas Berk—Theatre Berk’s producer—has created a brutal and potent form of entertainment. The play offers more questions than answers, but from start to finish, it remains confident in its ideas and brazenly, beautifully alive.
Professor Jekyll and Miss Hyde, directed by Shannon Walcott-Cluphf, introduces us to Daniel (Samuel Alexander Hawkins), a tenured professor. He has been accused of raping eight students, but that doesn’t stop him from going to a bar and coming on to Zelda Hyde, a mysterious woman who beguiles him by ordering a whiskey sour and agreeing to a night of no-consequences sex.
That’s the last time we see Daniel alive. Before he can receive a vaguely defined prize called “the Cullen Award,” he is stabbed to death. Is Zelda to blame? Perhaps, but she’s just one part of a mystery that deepens when the murder weapon is dropped on the doorstep of Bobbi Poole (Rachel Ladd), who works as an assistant to Mary Jekyll.
It takes Bobbi a while to figure out the obvious—that Mary is Zelda. Her transformation is sparked by medical experiments with psychedelics, but it is clear that Zelda is not an aberration. Mary simultaneously fears Zelda and craves the exhilaration she experiences when she slays Daniel. The savage satisfaction of not giving a fuck is psychedelic in and of itself.
When Mary becomes Zelda, she adopts a sleek, Louise Brooks-style wig, a clingy crimson dress and an imperious voice that sends a subzero chill through the theater. When Mary abruptly shouts, “You’re a dead fucking bitch!” you hear Mary vanish and Zelda emerge within the span of a few words—a seamless magic trick that is a testament to Cummings’ mastery of her multifaceted role.
While Professor Jekyll and Miss Hyde has the visceral force of a great horror film, it wants to do more than terrify us. The core of the play is the intellectual contest between Bobbi and Mary/Zelda—a battle that, depending on your perspective, is either a showdown between pragmatism and extremism or weakness and decisiveness.
Mary/Zelda rationalizes killing Daniel by arguing that the college was failing to protect its students from him. She’s not wrong—dean Joan Otteson (Shelley Tate) is startlingly indifferent to the allegations against Daniel—but Bobbi believes that altruistic intentions don’t justify murder.
Bobbi is also skeptical that the crimes Daniel may have committed cancel out his academic successes. She appreciates his work without forgiving his actions, a perspective that Professor Jekyll and Miss Hyde critiques without dismissing. It’s a pro-ambiguity play—and it argues that if Bobbi is willing to look for nuance in Daniel, she should do the same for Mary/Zelda.
Mary/Zelda has no interest in nuance—she believes that when it comes to sexual violence, America’s criminal justice system is so inadequate that she had no choice but to slay. It’s impossible to say how many people in the audience will agree, but her pessimism is all too understandable in a world populated by a seemingly endless supply of convicted and accused predators like Harvey Weinstein and Andrew Cuomo.
Professor Jekyll and Miss Hyde never definitively decides whether Zelda is a necessary evil—it’s a play haunted by stories yet to be told and ideas yet to be expressed. A provocateur of the finest order, Berk doesn’t want the play to settle comfortably into your soul. He wants it to churn and burn, leaving you wondering whether Zelda is too much and Bobbi is enough.
SEE IT: Professor Jekyll and Miss Hyde plays at Twilight Theater, 7517 N Brandon Ave., 503-816-2044, theatreberk.com/current-projects. 8 pm Friday-Saturday and 3 pm Sunday, through Nov. 28. $15.