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Identity Crisis

Jen Russo

Maui Academy of Performing Arts Director David Johnston talks about their Musical Jekyll and Hyde.

In Maui Academy of Performing Arts’ new musical Jekyll and Hyde, you’ll get to peer into a world in which people struggle against the pressures of society to be accepted as who they are. Sound familiar? Despite being written by Robert Louis Stevenson in the late 19th century about a doctor who can turn into a sinister monster, it turns out that Jekyll and Hyde is still very much a contemporary story, though dressed in Victorian clothing.

“The story has a relevance to our community now,” director David Johnston told me. “The Jekyll and Hyde piece is metaphor that we get to experience and share and learn from in 2016, from a story written in 1886. Just watching the rehearsals, it strikes me so much that sense of hypocrisy we face in our world is reflected in this show. And what that hypocrisy has done to people’s lives and how it has twisted things and prevented people from living that wholeness. I think that ultimately what we’re talking about with Jekyll and Hyde is this realization: to live in the light, we have to honor the wholeness in ourselves. We have to honor the dark and the light, and find a way to integrate those and find a way for them to live together. And teach each other to find the balance. Society has to find a way to find the balance, and reconcile those opposites.”

One of the show’s major themes is line between societal acceptance and repression. That’s perfected in the show’s number “The Facade,” according to Johnston.

“Last night at rehearsal, we were working on a number called ‘The Facade,'” says Johnston. “It’s the first big ensemble number of the show. A theme is introduced in that number, and it’s repeated several times throughout the show. I was saying that this is the setup for the entire show and one of the major themes. This, about what society does to people. The imposition of all of society’s rules, regs and mores, and morality on people. Everybody is living the facade instead of living their true lives. This story is about that suppression that was happening in the Victorian time period and for me there are actually a lot of parallels in society right now.”

What brings people to a tipping point? The character of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, played brilliantly by Will Kimball, tells the story of man struggling with acceptance and a passion that may not be understood by everyone.

“It’s that sense of what happens when that repression just keeps piling on and you begin to fight it,” says Johnston. “That struggle of who you are and that potential of who you could really be, and you’re not allowed to experience that. You get a character like Jekyll and Hyde who wants an answer, who wants to bring all of himself to the table, and to the world, and so he does everything he can to make that happen. We never know what the consequences are going to be when you do that. It can have some unpleasant results.”

Of course, the female lead characters in the show are also in the midst of identity crises.

“Emma, Jekyll/Hyde’s fiancé [played by Leighanna Locke], is a very progressive woman in a society that doesn’t appreciate that,” says Johnston. “She is a true partner of Jekyll intellectually and in terms of what they can create together on a professional level through science. She is not a person who fulfills the traditional female role in Victorian society. Her father says it’s her decision who she marries, but that wasn’t the case for most women in the late 1800s. Lucy (played by Kathryn Holtkamp) is this oppressed poor person who is selling herself and using that to survive. She sings a heart-wrenching song ‘If only I can find a man like Dr. Jekyll my life would be different.’ She is actually much more like Emma. They are fighting their societal repressions in different ways, too.”

The result is a love triangle. And yeah, you should probably forget what you think you know about Jekyll and Hyde.

“The show is not a well-known piece,” says Johnston. “If you have read Jekyll and Hyde by Stevenson, it’s not a terribly exciting read. It’s basically about Jekyll and Hyde and the strong relationship he has with his best friend Utterson. It’s all very male-oriented. The beauty of this piece, the screenplay, is that it takes liberties with the original story–there is no love story in the book by Stevenson. This play centers so much around the love triangle between Jekyll/Hyde and Lucy, the Red Rat prostitute girl, and Emma, his fiancé. And that circles back around to that whole point at the beginning that they are all looking for that person who can see who they are totally who loves them totally. No matter who they are. That desire each of us has in ourselves to have somebody, at least one person, who recognizes who we are completely. How important that is for someone to live at their fullest. There is one person that gets me, warts and all. That’s what I am working with.”

All of this takes place on sets made up like gigantic, dark cityscapes that move around the show. It’s all a reflection of industrialization and modernization in Victorian times. These are not merely for show.

“We have these humongous 18-foot pieces of scenery that loom over all of the action,” says Johnston. “It’s that sense, when you stand next to it at six feet tall, they are three times your size. It’s this presence that is always there. We did that on purpose. It represents that oppressive society that is always surrounding us, always dictating us, and confining us. There’s this feeling on set that because they are so huge, that it’s closing in on us, limiting us. Visually, we are trying to reinforce that theme of the facade and what society is dictating about who we have to be in the world.”

If all this sounds really dark and even morbid, it’s by design. After all, Johnston admits that he’s known for dark shows.

“What I always try to do when I pick a play is think about why is it important for us to be doing this piece, now,” says Johnston. “Does it have a relevance? I hope the choices that we make always do, because I believe so strongly about the power of theater to transform us as individuals, us as a society, us in our community. So that we walk away better people after experiencing this.”

But Jekyll and Hyde doesn’t need deep analysis because the lyrics are so good.

“One of the fun things about the show is all the layers; it’s really deep,” says Johnston. “The music is really strong, and surpasses the need for all the intellectual examination and speaks right to the heart and soul. You don’t have to think about it. You just have to be open to it to get the message of the piece.”

It’s the tradition of theater at his back that Johnston says propels him through Jekyll and Hyde.

“The Greeks understood this,” says Johnston. “They presented these incredible tragedies. And it was a cathartic moment for the community because it was a learning process and it transformed their thinking about what they were doing, how they were behaving and who they are as people. I hope we can touch on just a little bit of that in the work we present. That also answers the question of why I always do dark plays. But for me, they are so rich with the possibilities for learning and possibility of transforming. Jekyll and Hyde is so clearly, the imagery and everything about it is about transformation. The first lines in the play are a struggle with good and evil and it’s more than that. John Utterson (played by John Galvan)–Hyde’s best friend–says it’s about the transformation of a man’s soul, and mine. What he’s witnessed has had a reverberation to him as Hyde’s best friend, and out to society. That’s what I love about theater–the possibility for that kind of growth, and sense of change.”

I ask Johnston if he ever worries that Maui might not get the themes he’s worked so hard to develop.

“No, I don’t think the material is over anybody’s heads,” says Johnston. “It’s helping people understand they want to hear it. They don’t know until they hear it. I believe strongly that we work hard to create a very special experience, if people will step into the arena with us. We talk about what kinds of shows can we do here, or what shouldn’t we do here or what does the audience want. I don’t want to sound presumptuous, but I think what we have to do as artists is tell the truth. That’s our responsibility: to present the truth about issues and we have to believe and have confidence that the audience is smart. The audience will get it–if we do our job as storytellers. Which I believe is ultimately what we are in the theater. We are the keepers of the stories of our society. Our job is to make sure that we come together collectively, communally to share those stories. We have a responsibility in community to share these moments. To learn from them. To grow from them. To open the conversation about these things. It’s a matter of trusting that look, if we do our job really well that people will respond to it. It’s just getting them in the door to share the experience–that’s the hard part.”

Aug 5-7 and 12-14
Tickets are $15-75 (25 percent discount for students 18 and under)
Maui Arts and Cultural Center
Castle Theater
(1 Cameron Way, Kahului)
Photos by Peter Swanzy

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