Genesis Reboot

Synetic Theater – which has spent the past decade building a reputation for the “synthesis” of its “kinetic” theatrical elements – has taken a break from its acclaimed silent Shakespeare productions to take on an even older set of stories: the Book of Genesis.

Joseph Carlson as the Demon, Austin Johnson as Adam, Brynn Tucker as Eve, and Mary Werntz as the Angel (Photo: John Shryock)

But Genesis Reboot, an ambitious attempt by Synetic to “reboot” an endlessly retold story that’s already existed for thousands of years, bites off – like original sinner Eve – a lot more than it can (or should) chew.

Let’s start with what works. Daniel Pinha’s strikingly-designed Eden set, which features a gunmetal-gray Tree of Knowledge at its center, puts a perfectly chilling retro-futurist spin on the familiar biblical imagery. Costume designer Kristy Hall makes a similarly impressive Synetic Theater debut, giving the play’s characters an effective steampunk-meets-bondage look.

Genesis Reboot’s strongest features are its several well-choreographed dance scenes, with a dance/chase hybrid over the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge between Eve (Brynn Tucker) and the Garden of Eden’s Serpent (Mary Werntz) standing out as a particular highlight. Synetic has rightly earned the moniker of “DC’s premier physical theater,” and the best moments of Genesis Reboot fully live up to that title.

But Genesis Reboot has its most unfortunate problems in the many scenes in which the characters stop dancing and start talking. This is a play that opens with a kernel of a great idea: What if a well-intentioned angel were to reboot the universe? If all the earth’s sinners were granted some kind of cosmic mulligan, could things be better than they are now?  Having established that premise, Genesis Reboot sets about a “retelling” that hews surprisingly closely to the original biblical stories until the play’s bitter end.

It is, admittedly, a tall order to bring something new to parts as iconic and typified as Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, or Angel and Devil. (Genesis Reboot is confined to the first four of the Book of Genesis’ 50 chapters, so don’t expect to see Noah and his Ark, Abraham and his concubine, or Joseph and his amazing Technicolor dream coat).

If there’s a way to bring new life to these old stories, Genesis Reboot doesn’t find it. Adam and Eve, whose scenes are the play’s least successful, are presumably meant to evoke the innocence and naivety of childhood. But did they also have to replicate the banality, triteness, and emotional immaturity of childhood?

The two engage in long, circular conversations about whether they’re “smaaaaart” or “stuuuupid,” with lines that recall what you might hear from a particularly immature eight-year-old – which means that Genesis Reboot spends an inordinate amount of time on dialogue between two uninteresting, unsympathetic simpletons. At one point, the play’s Demon rhetorically asks, “Who cares about a couple of ill-bred fruit enthusiasts wandering around a garden?” and I found myself nodding in agreement.

There are less pointed but similar problems with Genesis Reboot’s take on Cain and Abel. Why “reboot” the Book of Genesis without making any significant changes to the stories’ variables? Genesis Reboot attempts to shake things up by setting Cain and Abel’s scenes in a kind of barracks-esque prison, but the new setting ends up having virtually no impact on the story’s events. Cain is still Cain, with all his impotent rage, and Abel is still Abel, with all his righteous piety. And when the play finally veers from the conventional arc of both the Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel stories, it’s at the play’s end – the point at which a play that aims to “confront the very idea of retelling” should begin.

The Adam and Eve/Cain and Abel story are framed by the conflict between Angel and Demon, who (in Genesis Reboot’s cleverest move) switch roles near the middle of the play after the Demon pulls a trick that recalls Bugs Bunny’s “duck season/rabbit season” ploy from “Looney Tunes.” There is perhaps a problem with a demon that recalls a children’s cartoon character more than the legions of Hell, but the comparison stands; as played by Joseph Carlson, the Demon feels less like a threat and more like a prankster, pulling strings to hassle the Angel without any concrete malevolent intent.

Though Genesis Reboot’s tone is inconsistent, its plotting feels somewhat inevitable; the three stories come to a unified end in the only way that a play with “reboot” in the title really can. Ben Cunis, director and co-writer of Genesis Reboot, is something of a renaissance man for Synetic, with prior experience acting, directing, adapting, and choreographing. His considerable contributions to some of Synetic’s greatest successes have gone a long way toward proving his theatrical chops, but Genesis Reboot unfortunately misses the mark. Genesis Reboot’s promotional material would have audiences believe that it’s a “farcical new play,” but trusting that description will send theatergoers astray; there’s nothing particularly farcical here, and not nearly enough that feels new.

Genesis Reboot runs thru March 4, 2012 at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell St, Arlington, VA.

Genesis Reboot

Written by Ben Cunis & Peter Cunis
Directed by Ben Cunis
Produced by Synetic Theater
Reviewed by Scott Meslow

Somewhat Recommended

Running Time: One hour and thirty minutes with no intermission


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Comments

  1. So I take it the central theme of the grim inevitability of much of the story, human nature, faith vs. reason, and the arbitrariness of identity in a construct without definitions was shrugged off as “not overtly different enough” by the reviewer? 

    I want to post a counterargument because I feel like people reading these reviews to decide to see plays deserve to hear how powerfully the show affected me. I’ve seen MANY Synetic shows, and I generally agree with the notion that they’re better when they’re silent. There are certain aspects to a typical Synetic show that shine brighter in movement.

    This, however, is NOT a typical Synetic show. It is a subtle, provocative, complicated new play, produced initially in the Synetic style, and no matter what your preconceived ideas about the story and their telling might be, it will find some way to surprise you.

    All six actors in this show give what, to me, are performances far beyond your standard “great Synetic performance”, as they are characters incredibly well etched and well acted by any standard.

    Lastly, the play itself is difficult…but I’d argue difficult in the way that a great new play should be. You watch eagerly, intently, looking for the turns and shifts, seeing how the experiment will either change things or prove how things can’t, and what added or subtracted elements may do to the players involved. You leave with questions and fodder for a great dinner conversation. I have a feeling that if this play had been produced at a theatre like Forum, this same reviewer would have interpreted the writing and the nuance far differently, as his expectations would have shifted to a different place.

    Shift your expectations, readers. If you have a vague curiosity what happens when Synetic changes things up, or introduces complex writing, or are just drawn by a story about our desperation to “fix” and the futility that may come from that, I highly, emphatically, recommend this show. 

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