Based on “The Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri
Adapted by Ben Cunis, Nathan Weinberger and Paata Tsikurishvili
Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili
Choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili
Produced by Synetic Theater
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Forget their multiple Helen Hayes Awards; cast aside all their revolutionary wordless interpretations of Shakespeare; dismiss all their productions which have hitherto stunned audiences and reduced critics to babbling. Take it from me, sports fans; this is the best Synetic ever.
Dante is great because it puts the unacknowledged part of Synetic’s greatness front and center. It is not Synetic’s fabulous movement-based storytelling, which has been celebrated far and wide. It is not Synetic’s fantastic theatricality, or the company’s ability to create devastating effects with dry ice or a piece of cloth. It is, instead, that Synetic – and in particular the husband-and-wife team of director Paata and choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili – has picked up the rock of the human psyche, and know the wormy slimy things that crawl underneath.
So did Dante Alighieri, which is why his guided tour of Hell remains a vivid part of our literature even now, seven hundred years later. (Dante is mostly “The Inferno”; “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso” are depicted sotto voce). Dante created indelible images of tortured souls and voracious demons, and Synetic, like a theatrical god, has turned these images into flesh.
Notwithstanding, we must remember that “The Divine Comedy” is a fourteen thousand-line poem, not a play, and it is almost completely without narrative structure. Paata Tsikurishvili called it “a museum,” and it is – the greatest museum in the world, because the subject is us, and our demons. It is a walk-through of the real Heartbreak Hotel, and Synetic uses divine art to show us the human and the damned.
You probably know the story, at least in outline form: Dante (Ben Cunis), who has lost his true love Beatrice (Natalie Berk) to death, is run out of his corrupt and filthy town after catching a lascivious Bishop (Chris Galindo) making, as we say, the beast with two backs. Dante picks up a knife and contemplates bleeding his own life away, until the poet Virgil (Greg Marzullo) offers to show him the fate of all who commit the sin of despair, or who otherwise do mortal wrong. As Dante and Virgil land on the banks of Hell, they see the Bishop dragged off in front of them – not for his lust (the lusty apparently go to one of the better sections of Hell, resembling as it does the old Studio 54) but for his hypocrisy. He eventually meets a fate too awful to describe (think Edward II, with splinters.)
Dante’s “Inferno” consists of nine circles of Hell, with twenty-three sub-classifications. Synetic depicts some the most vivid. Limbo, the first circle, is Virgil’s home. Consistent with Dante’s Christian vision, its denizens, all blameless people who died without knowing the true God, sigh in constant unfulfilled longing. They are unharmed physically, but it is not enough, as they are denied union with God.
The lustful (second circle) appear to be at some kind of a catastrophic eternal rave, where a pasty-clad Francesca (Salma Qarnain) serves as a demonic mistress of ceremonies. In the second circle, sinners slobber over each other indiscriminately, without thought or restraint (Dante called lust “incontinence.”)
Synetic’s art achieves its apogee in its depiction of the Gluttons’ Hell (third circle) and the Hell of the Soothsayers (circle eight, bolgia four). The gluttons, crawling like worms in skin-tight vinyl, are themselves forced by demons into the bowels of Hell, whereafter the demons stomp on them, as though tamping down garbage for a trash compactor. In the show I attended, the audience spontaneously applauded after this scene, and every scene thereafter.
But the Soothsayers’ Hell is even more stunning. Dante imagined soothsayers and other false prophets living eternity in distorted bodies, to match the distortion of the truth they created in life. Synetic creates a scene featuring headless men, or men carrying their heads in their hands, with rivulets of blood running out of their necks, presided over by a woman whose head faces in one direction and whose feet face another. It’s funny, and disgusting, and terrifying.
But – what the Hades – this entire production is awash with brilliantly imaginative depictions of unspeakable beings doing unspeakable acts. I wondered at the outset why two actors (Vato Tsikurishvili and Katie Maguire) were credited with the role of Minos; you will be astonished to learn the answer. Synetic conjures blood, flame, wind and flood with casual ease and to convincing effect; if it is necessary to call forth a twelve-foot tall demon, Synetic does that too.
There is only such dialogue as is necessary to tell the story; Cunis and Marzullo speak ninety percent of that. Dante, of course, was a beautiful writer but his lines are closer to the Greek tradition than they are to our modern dialogue. But Cunis and Marzullo deliver them in such an unforced manner as to make the extravagant language sound authentic.
The technical work is beyond outstanding. Anastasia Ryurikov Simes is responsible for the stunning carnivorous spiral set, which I’ve heard described as “a vagina with teeth.” She is also responsible for the sumptuous costumes, each of which suggests their wearer’s sins with uncanny accuracy. Konstantine Lortkipaniedze provides Hell’s soundtrack. It is some of his best work. And all hail lighting designer Andrew F. Griffin, who can bring the dead to life, and turn Hell to Heaven, with proper application of a gel or a dimmer.
Look, go see this thing. I guarantee you’ll like it. I’ll go further: if you see this show, and you don’t like it, I invite you to call me a moron in the comments section. (This offer not available to reviewers from other publications, or their immediate families).
Remember: best Synetic ever.
Running Time: One hour fifty-five minutes (no intermission).
When: Thursdays through Sundays until March 22. Sundays are at 3; all other shows at 8.
Where: Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington, VA.