All over the promotional material for Synetic’s Man in the Iron Mask, there is a dire warning: THIS PRODUCTION WILL HAVE DIALOGUE. As if audiences have to be warned of talking actors as much as they must be warned of flashing lights, deafening gunshots, vomit-inducing gore, or, heaven forfend, titillating nudity.
Though perhaps this warning shouldn’t be surprising in the context of the unfair shellacking delivered to them in the Wall Street Journal by James Blowhard, excuse me, Bovard, for their Silent Shakespeare project. But The Man in the Iron Mask proves James Bloviator, excuse me, Bovard, wrong on several levels: Synetic’s company handles dialogue with sharp efficacy, they express a true Shakespearean spirit with their world class fighting and dance sequences and, most importantly, that the most shining storytelling moments in Man in the Iron Mask are told beautifully with no words at all.
Peter and Ben Cunis’ adaptation distills Alexandre Dumas’ monstrous 500 page capstone on his Three Musketeers series into a raucously fun, if occasionally wending, two and a half hour roller coaster ride. The only Musketeer left in uniform is the fourth, D’Artagnan, given a bold and muscular treatment by DC newcomer Shu-Nan Chu.
The Man in the Iron Mask is, titular character aside, D’Artagnan’s story. He’s torn between his duty to Alex Mills’ eminently hateable child-king Louis (whose villainously nerve-shredding arrogance would be impossible sans dialogue) and his lovable but unorthodox former companions, the Three Musketeers: Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.
Each of the former Three Musketeers has taken a different tack into retirement. Ryan Sellers’ scheming and snobbish Aramis has stayed on at court, angling for advancement by joining the Church. His ambition is the whip that drives the plot forward, but Sellers feels genuine, never nefarious or like a MacGuffin.
Ben Cunis’ Athos takes a more traditional delve into retirement by going to the country and focusing on his family. But Cunis shows the great tradition of Synetic’s movement-based theater when he gets back in the action at court, he gets to do what he does best: smoulder silently.
Nick Aliff’s Porthos chooses to spend his post-Musketeer days drinking and, Falstaff-like, steals the show by dominating the audience without dominating the stage. His comic monologues and quips brought the house down, and his poignant and silent tragic moment left more than one audience member openly weeping. While I’ve seen pure movement that has inspired reactions like that, Aliff’s easy handle of Cunis’ words shows how skillfully Synetic combines dialogue and movement.
As expected for a story that follows Musketeers, Man in the Iron Mask is an adventure story, which is a terribly difficult genre to portray onstage. Movies can rely on quick cut chase scenes that move from place to place, but the theater has to be more inventive. Director Paata Tsikurishvili has worked some serious magic with his designers to ensure the constant change necessary for exhilarating action sequences. Brittany Diliberto’s lights have huge contrast between dark and light but give the actors plenty of cover to perform some movement sleight of hand. Daniel Pinha’s set is made entirely of moving pieces (a modular set is the technical term). But unlike most plays, which move a modular set only between scenes, Tsikurishvili has the actors move the sets during scenes to create the illusion of movement, especially as a part of dance or fight sequences.
And what fight sequences these are. I’m normally bored with stage fights because actors and fight choreographers rarely have the skill or rehearsal time to run fights at a speed that feels risky and exciting. But thanks to Fight Choreographers Vato Tsikurishvili and Ben Cunis (and most likely Movement Choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili) this cast blazes through their rapier duels and fisticuffs at 110%, bounding around the constantly moving sets with gusto. These fights are worth the price of admission.
But you’ll have to have some patience with this play. Even though there are loads of fights and dances and humorous bits throughout the play, Man in the Iron Mask takes a few too many steps when it comes to the titular plotline of the imprisoned identical twin of King Louis, Phillipe, also played by Alex Mills. Mills finds a good difference in physicality for these two characters, but the dual performances feel imbalanced. ——–
The Man in the Iron Mask
closes June 19, 2016
Details and tickets
He is so adept at King Louis, inspiring Phi Phi O’Hara levels of hate, and Louis is such a constant presence that his Phillipe feels like it lacks clarity. The bigger issue is the amount of stage time spent on Louis and his court shenanigans that have nothing to do with Phillipe or the Musketeers that makes Louis feel so overwhelming. For decently long stretches of the performance, I kept on clamoring for more Musketeers.
But this problem is not the worst to have: a thrilling adventure story with four different but equally enjoyable characters to whom your audience longs to return. Synetic and director Paata Tsikurishvili have found a lovely combination of theatrical identity with Man in the Iron Mask: deft dialogue that proves them more than just “the Silent Shakespeare” company and powerful silent moments that prove the authentic, legitimate storytelling of their mastery of movement. I’ve seen quite a few of their dialogue- and movement-based pieces now, and Man in the Iron Mask is the best they’ve done by far.
Check it out to see what a formerly niche company on the cusp of becoming a powerhouse looks like.
Man in the Iron Mask adapted from Alexandre Dumas by Peter and Ben Cunis. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili . Featuring Ryan Sellers, Alex Mills, Shu-Nan Chu, Lee Liebeskind, Nick Aliff, Ben Cunis, William Hayes, Jodi Niehoff, Nathan Weinberger, Peter Pereyra, Anna Lane, Irina Kavsadze, Zana Gankhuyag, Tori Bertocci, and Lauren Brown. Set Design: Daniel Pinha . Costume Design: Erik Teague . Sound Design: Thomas Sowers . Lighting Design: Brittany Diliberto . Movement: Irina Tsikurishvili . Composer: Kostantin Lortkipanidze . Fight Choreographers: Ben Cunis and Vato Tsikurishvili. Produced by Synetic Theater . Reviewed by Alan Katz.