You have to hand it to Synetic’s Artistic Director Paata Tsikurishvili. It took courage to turn his back on the basic ‘wordless’ formula that has won the company many accolades with its invented physical theatre style and to set out boldly to discover a new sound, a new style of movement, and, most importantly, a way of driving a production through spoken word. Plucking as source material The Picture of Dorian Gray, a wordsmith’s work, penned originally by Oscar Wilde, proved a good springboard for this challenge. Understandably, some things worked, while some aspects appear very much a work-in-progress.
Wilde’s novel with its supernatural elements and its quest into darkness, seems to be a perfect vehicle for a company not afraid to “get weird” and explore physical metaphors for huge emotions and states of being. The story of a man who, Narcissus-like, falls in love with his own beauty and sells his soul for youthful immortality is not only an apt metaphor for our times, with its emphasis on self-image, but seems particularly convincing being delivered by these artists who relentlessly drive their bodies to physical perfection and push themselves to maintain identities of ageless youth.
Tsikurishvili has divided the central spine of the story into three characters – as he has so brilliantly done before, notably with his tri-partite Iago in Othello. There is the artist, Basil, played by Robert Bowen Smith, who sublimates his love for his beautiful model and falls in love with his creation, a portrait. There is the model, Dorian Gray (Dallas Tolentino,) who falls in love with his own “reflection” in the canvas and hopes to avoid both aging and paying the consequences of a depraved life with his bizarre deal. Finally, there is the art-as-object The Painting, played by founding Synetic member Philip Fletcher. The play revolves around the relationship of these three.
What worked? The soundscape, created by company member Irakli Kavsadze with original music by company composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze, used a much broader palette of colors and stylistic blend of music than I’ve heard before with Synetic. Designed then by Thomas Sowers, the sonorous tapestry kept catching my ear and giving pleasing depth to the production.
A lot of the choreography (Irina Tsikurishvili) and fight choreography (Ben Cunis), these twin pillars who have so defined this company over the years, succeeded in breaking new ground. The opening sequence of artists’ models shifting between classic poses demonstrated that the power achieved in perfect stillness and sculpting of bodies in space becomes endlessly fascinating to watch without having performers frenetically bound around the stage.
There were some beautiful duets, particularly with newcomer Rachel Jacobs partnered by Tolentino as ill-fated lovers. Certainly, the most inventive movement sequences sprang from the relationship of subject and painting. Fletcher and Tolentino are terrific physical specimens, and Tsikurishvili and Cunis went all-out inventing duet after duet for them. Each one seemed to blend dance and fight in fresh ways as these two performers coiled and clung together, flipped and rolled, spun and spurned each other. When Tolentino executed perfectly the equivalent of a Michael Jackson moonwalk, lying horizontally, it was as if he were being demonically pulled backwards across the floor, summoned by his own doppelgänger Fletcher. Tolentino and Fletcher took my breath away at times, not only because of their stamina and sheer physical prowess but because they filled their movements with both erotic attraction and intent to kill.
Beautiful, scantily clad dancers is another hallmark of Synetic, and here they don’t disappoint. Although the erotic choreography repeated in nearly every show – this time, we even get a simulated orgy of sorts – may have the effect of diminishing impact. The most original number in this category, because of its double-tone of humor and weirdness, was the stylized opium den complete with odd prancing Chinese-robed girls who shared a hookah. It was an Alice-in-Wonderland scene and itchy-good.
And then there was the paint ball orgy-war. Yes, we can pretty much expect Synetic to explore a new medium. The company did it fabulously with sand in King Lear and with water in King Arthur, exploring how bodies physically (and emotionally) respond pushing through different elements. In this show, they were going for paint. Performers splattered paint on flesh then slithered up and down each other, “smooshing” the colors together.
The truth is, if you have ever been to a paint ball field, when you fire enough paint of different colors, things all go gray, leaving the world a lifeless zone. You could say that metaphorically, it happened in this production. This scene exemplified a “too many, too much, too long” accumulation with the show.
Part of the problem was that for this scene the company had erected a big plexiglass shield that walled off the on-stage play from “splash zone” of the front row – thus removing the dangerous and delicious element. Coming at the end of Act I, the clear wall was inadequately cleaned off and remained up mysteriously for all of Act II. The blurry wall cut off the emotional impact of the remaining scenes and, most particularly, muffled the sound.
And human sound, by that I mean the dialogue, was where the company exposed itself the most. These performers have simply not put in the same kind of dedication and training yet to producing sound and articulation as they have with their admirable physical skills. Joseph Carlson, who played Lord Henry, a kind of stand-in for Oscar Wilde, demonstrated the greatest ease and abilities in this area. He was able to carry a pretty acceptable British accent and projected a character that best integrated a physical style of the period with a sound, but even he couldn’t deliver the witticisms, pulled from many Wildean sources, in a way that endlessly sparkled.
Most of the company struggled with basic projection issues. Some, in trying to emulate a heightened “poetic style” of delivery, fell into a kind of stilted over-articulation. No one really had the means to speak over the amplified sound and strained in their shouted attempts.
With Synetic, there is always so much to take in and on so many levels. The set by Daniel Pinha, with its ten framing devices gave wonderful opportunities for Riki K’s complex, tightly-executed multi-media collages. Colin K. Bills’ lighting works brilliantly. Kendra Rai has managed to invent costumes that allow the bodies to move, take abuse, and slither in and out of periods.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Closes November 3, 2013
1800 S. Bell Street
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $40 – $55
Wednesdays thru Sundays
This company knows how to get the most out of its ensemble. A special mention goes to Vato Tsikurishvili, who, having taken strong leads in several productions, merged back into the ensemble for this show. Nonetheless, his strong clown-like figure on stage can’t be missed, and vocally he’s one who will clearly transition from Synetic’s silent media to “the talkies.”
Watching the audience, including many DC theater colleagues on opening night, I kept thinking that despite my reservations, I applaud the Synetic company for taking the risks, for only by doing so can these artists grow as a company.
The Picture of Dorian Gray . Based on the novel by Oscar Wilde . Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili . Choreography by Irina Tsikurishvili . Featuring Dallas Tolentino, Joe Carlson, Robert Smith, Mitchell Grant, Vato Tsikurishvili, Kathy Gordon, Irina Kavsadze, Rachael Jacobs, Rachel Burkhardt, and Philip Fletcher. Dramaturg – Nathan Weinberger; Assistant Director/Music Director – Irakli Kavsadze; Assistant Director/Fight Choreographer – Ben Cunis; Set Design -Daniel Pinha; Costumes – Kendra Rai; Lighting Design – Colin K. Bills; Multimedia Design – Riki K; Original Music – Konstantine Lortkipanidze; Vocal Coaching – Robert Smith; Sound Design and Effects – Thomas Sowers; Stage Manager – Marley Giggey . Produced by Synetic Theater . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.