When a six-year-old in the lobby says, “This is going to be awesome,” I ask why. “I know the story.” Several other youngsters look up. They know it too. No, not from Disney World’s Magic Kingdom; they’ve heard it from their mothers who read or tell them stories. I’m impressed.
If your childhood was inundated with Grimm’s Fairy Tales (as was mine), getting to know the traditional Chinese folktale will expand your horizon to an ancient culture. The Magic Paintbrush plot is simple and perfect for a Synetic enactment. A lowly orphan (Kathryn Connors) uses the gift of a magic paintbrush to free the poor people oppressed by a greedy emperor.
Under director Elena Velasco, six agile, athletically gifted, versatile young performers, dancing their hearts out, bring the narrative to life through the Synetic style of wordless physicality. Based on the maxim noted in the program, actions are indeed “…stronger than words.” As in Synetic’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the text is merely a hopping off point for physical storytelling through dance, acrobatics, pantomime, music and rod puppetry (for leaping fish).
Sincere commitment is contagious and judging from the wide-eyed reactions of youngsters and parents alike, something miraculous is happening here.
Not all is silence. Original electronic music composed by the accomplished Konstantine Lortkipanidze proximates the high-pitched twanging interspersed with melodic passages in Chinese classical music. This expressive accompaniment gives voice to the changing moods of the characters; guaranteed to snap an audience of kids to attention.
To metronome-like, repetitive music, Connors as the drably-dressed Orphan, weighted down by a backpack, trudges across the stage, gathering sticks for kindling in a bleak world. Connors pantomimes and dances barefoot in moves that are both balletic and modern free-style to establish that the aspiring artist longs to break out. The have-not youth uses one of her sticks to draw pictures wherever she wanders. But in a world where freedom of expression is scorned, the Art Teacher (Michael Greenan, who plays multiple characters) wads up the young artist’s first drawing and casts her out of the calligraphy class, an elite place and art reserved for the wealthy.
Then one night in a dream, a mysterious old man gives the Orphan a magic paintbrush that dazzles and shimmers in the light (lighting by Lawson Earl). Everything changes and everyone wants her paintings. A bird painted with the magic paintbrush becomes real in our imaginations, and flutters away with the aid of bird calls, and uplifting, lyrical changes into melodic music. That’s when numerous strange, paranormal events happen. You have to decide what’s real or unreal; and, just as the youngster in the lobby said, what is truly “awesome.”
The aerial choreography for the Orphan’s dreams by Meg Maxwell (who also enacts a mind-boggling string of roles) is dazzling enough to elicit audible gasps. “Whoosh,” says one child. Aerialists (Joshua Rosenblum and Maxwell) get wrapped up and suspended by red curtains as amazing transformations from the page to stage are enacted. Floor-shaking drumming accompanies an undulating silver and gold Serpent, led by Maxwell, who also impersonates the darting Phoenix, the mythical bird that rises from the ashes. The kids are captivated.
Choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili works in a splendid touch of Water Sleeve dancing and flag twirling, borrowed from The Peking Opera. Long silk sleeves (costumes by William Pucilowsky) are whipped around like windmills to add exciting spectacle to the dream sequence.
A must-mention comes at the turning point. We are thrust into the midst of a wild chase scene that breaks through the proscenium arch. The Evil Emperor (a scowling Michael Greenan), who, in the printed text hears of the artist with the magic brush, wants it selfishly for himself. When the Orphan tries to escape to the countryside, soldiers are sent in hot pursuit. Connors as the Orphan doesn’t just hightail it into the aisle, she perches and teeters precariously on the partition, as if on a gymnast’s balance beam behind the seating area. The children pivot in their seats to the back of the 75-seat theater to watch. It’s a great moment.
The force of evil almost prevails. The Emperor ultimately overpowers the Orphan, steals the paintbrush and forces the Orphan to paint him a mountain of gold. But the clever Orphan as a trickster character outwits the avaricious but gullible emperor and lives up to the moral in the story. Magic can be used to change good to bad, or bad to good. Those like the Orphan who live with goodness in their hearts will win in the end.
The Magic Paintbrush
Based on an ancient Chinese folktale
Conceived and directed by Elena Velasco
Music by Konstantine Lortkipanidze
Produced by Synetic Family Theater
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
For All Ages, 4+
Running Time: about one hour with no intermission
Chris Klimek . Washington City Paper