A Halloween Treat From the Penny Seats: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at WCC
In the summer of 2011, Lauren London, now general counsel at Eastern Michigan University, brought together a troupe of unpretentious and fun-loving thespians who created the Penny Seats Theatre Company. The idea was to offer theater tickets that were about the price of movie tickets, affordable for all, echoing the penny seats available to Elizabethans who came to shows at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
After opening its first production at the bandshell in West Park, Penny Seats performed in assorted venues, outdoors and in, including a restaurant, a church, and the rehearsal room of a theater -- but never in a theater. They struggled with imperfect acoustics and limited equipment, becoming more technically savvy each season. And each season, Penny Seats did more and better productions. Now, they do four-show seasons that include summers in the park.
Over the years, the company produced musicals, dramas, comedies, and cabaret shows, including some original works, such as Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Renaissance Man. Horror was on the menu, too, last October, with Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and in the park last summer with Zettelmaier’s The Gravedigger and the musical based on Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein.
There was no thought of making a habit of horror. Then Zettelmaier had an idea, which he presented to London and the rest of the board.
Zettelmaier, a prolific playwright who has written in every genre and directed and acted in several, noticed that his work is produced more frequently in October than other months, and theaters often favor his horror offerings. It doesn’t surprise him. “When you look at it statistically, Halloween is the highest grossing holiday in the nation. There’s something so inherently festive about it.”
So why not produce a Halloween play every October? Why not call it the Penny Dreadfuls, a nod to the theater’s name and to sensationalized stories, serialized and sold for a penny an episode in 19th-century London? Why not select plays that weren’t driven by blood and gore but by atmosphere and character?
“We thought there seemed to be a space in the community, not a physical space, for Halloween theater,” London agreed. When Zettelmaier volunteered to head up the project and direct the first show, everyone was on board. London, who has acted and directed for Penny Seats, would serve as producer. And for the first time in the history of their theater, they arranged to perform in a theater.
In the fall of 2018, on a dark and rainy October night, the Penny Seats opened in an intimate theater on the Washtenaw Community College campus. It wouldn’t have mattered if the weather had been less cooperative -- Zettelmaier’s production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde needed no help to usher in the Halloween season.
Zettelmaier had considered several adaptations of the Robert Louis Stephenson novella before selecting Jeffrey Hatcher’s, the one he felt was most faithful to the story about a man with a dual personality. Dr Jekyll is, of course, Mr. Hyde, at turns a mad murderer and “himself,” a respected scientist studying the possibility that we have others within us. (The novella appeared about 30 years before Freud distinguished between the id, ego, and superego).
The play is a perfect choice, not only for Halloween but for our society today. Do Americans, once committed to democratic institutions and ideals, have a dark side? The prospect is scary.
Under Zettelmaier’s deft direction, an energetic cast of six plays multiple roles, effectively shifting from character to character and scene to scene. In a world where identity is tentative, Hyde is played by four different actors. Michael Alan Herman is the only player to do one character, and he does Dr. Henry Jekyll so well you’d be certain you saw him transform into Hyde many times over. Josie Lapczynski convincingly falls in love with Hyde before our eyes. The rest of the fine cast, all Mr. Hyde as well as other characters, are David Galido as Mr. Jekyll’s lawyer, Dan Johnson, as a self-important incompetent doctor, Julia Garlotte as Jekyll’s loyal servant, and Alysia Kolascz as Jekyll’s colleague.
Zettelmaier doesn’t depend on special effects or fancy stage business to create evocative stage pictures in this vivid production that stays with you. Stephen Hankes provides a simple set, with costumes, props and set dressing by Ben Despard and lit by Tyler Chinn, which conveys the Victorian era without limiting anything our imaginations might want to add. Julia Garlotte’s sound design sets the tone, even before the first actor enters, with music from Midnight Syndicate, a group that does Halloween music, and some from the soundtrack of the TV show Penny Dreadful.
This production is dark and dreadful -- and just wonderful.
Freelance writer Davi Napoleon holds a Ph.D. in theater history, theory and criticism from New York University. Her book is Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre.
"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" runs through October 28 at the College Theatre in the Crane Liberal Arts and Science Building at Washtenaw Community College, 4800 E. Huron River Dr., Ann Arbor. For tickets and further information visit pennyseats.org.