In their first original piece in five years, Synetic Theater tells a grand story, from humanity’s flawed origin all the way to an ignominious end. The non-stop display of physical prowess and intelligent design is entrancing, even as the show urges you to get up and do something about the state of the world.
To be fair, The Mark of Cain begins as an adaptation, following the well-known Christian fables of God creating the Earth, Adam and Eve getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden, and the first murder: a jealous Cain killing Abel over God’s preference for the younger of the two brothers.
From there, the play rockets into an exploration of evil and corruption, as a now immortal Cain waltzes through history, picking up new crowns and playing with each era’s heights of power. He is guided by the Dark Angel, the very same who tempted his parents into stealing fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, facilitating his darks whims until Cain has usurped God and destroyed humanity.
The adapted section of the show is beautiful and otherworldly. Before the Original Sin, Philip Fletcher’s God is pomp without pompous, methodical yet reassuring. Adam and Eve (Scott Brown and Tori Bertocci, the latter also a deviser and assistant director) ease through the Garden as if through water, perhaps in a womb.
After their fall from grace, the show really comes alive. God’s wrath is gloriously depicted by the ensemble, cleverly using curved rods to create a rampaging sea, swallowing Eden and threatening to drown our legendary ancestors. It is the first in many huge scenes that let choreographer and co-deviser Irinia Tsikurishvili make the most of a supremely talented cast.
The first third also gives Ryan Sellers’s Cain plenty of room to be humanized. He and Dallas Tolentino’s Abel both sweetly care for each other and mourn their parents’ passing, before the inevitable betrayal. While the first third occasionally luxuriates a bit too long in each section, those moments of humanization are valuable opportunities to make us wonder, as the world crumbles under Cain, did it have to go this way?
The Mark of Cain
closes August 13, 2017
Details and tickets
With Cain’s family dead and the Dark Angel at his side, the play sprints through history. Though the plot is the same each time (Cain takes control and makes things worse), each section has its own feel in the music and choreography: A passionate Roman orgy, a farcical bloodbath of European regicide, the regimented discipline of an industrialized military, our own age of plugged-in consumption, and a final apocalyptic dystopia.
It is impressive how Paata Tsikurishvili, founding artistic director of Synetic who also directed and helped devise this show, uses so many genres and emotions in service of one simple story. We all expect the ending, but this show shines in how much beauty and even fun it makes depicting humanity’s downfall.
Paata warns the audience that The Mark of Cain is surrealist, even invoking Dalí. He says, during his pre-show speech, that each audience member might walk away with a different interpretation. I was worried it would be muddled and hard to pull any meaning out of whatsoever. Instead, the show is rather straight forward, but so rich in constant movement and symbolism that audience members can excitedly share bits and pieces that others missed, especially as Cain takes on modernity. Playing Count the Trump References, a new fad sweeping the DC theatre community, is well rewarded.
Paata and Phil Charlwood’s scenic design is anchored around the Tree of Knowledge, which often serves as a throne for God. Lighting designer Brian Allard finds great moments to cast the branches’ shadows against the walls of the theater. In classic Synetic style, the set moves so swiftly that it can dance along with Fletcher and Sellers in God’s rage at Abel’s murder. However, that also means, in classic Synetic style, the set is prone to creak and waver. Somehow, the huge devices of wood and metal seem far less reliable than the humans on stage.
During the melee of European monarchs slaughtering each other, Sellers and Kathy Gordon, who plays the Dark Angel, hold two major set pieces together to create an elevated stage-on-a-stage, almost like a Punch & Judy show. But the great energy the ensemble puts into their stage combat makes the two set pieces pull apart and chomp back together, over and over. It is distracting, during such comedic violence, to be holding your breath worrying that an actor might lose a finger to a dangerous set.
Gordon as the Dark Angel gives a great performance for what she was given, but the role touches on this play’s own original sin. In a story about morality, some moments work while others are unfairly judgmental. When televisions literally suck the brains out of their viewers, The Mark of Cain begins to sound like a baby-boomer’s tired, old rant against millennials. With the Dark Angel, its crusading is a little more insidious. Gordon undulates, not like a snake, but more as a demonstration of feminine sexuality, or at least an objectification and, given her role, damnation of feminine sexuality. For a theatre company that just performed The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Gordon seems directed by Frollo. An otherwise gorgeous and engaging show is cringeworthy when the Dark Angel and Cain take a selfie of their butts using Cain’s new-fangled cell phone. The embodiment of evil and corruption is Snapchat and butts?
It’s easy to point out occasionally dated morality, the uncertain set, and a few moments of drag in the first act. But only Synetic itself can give you the experience of wonder that The Mark of Cain gave me. The show is an adventure to watch and devastating to accept as things go from bad to worse to worst so beautifully.
Mark of Cain. Adapted by Paata Tsikurishvili, Irinia Tsikurishvili, Tori Bertocci, and Nathan Weinberger. Choreographed by Irinia Tsikurishvili. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Performed by Ryan Sellers, Dallas Tolentino, Philip Fletcher, Kathy Gordon, Scott Brown, Tori Bertocci, Baumgardner, Zana Gankhuyag, Irina Kavsadze, and Megan Khaziran. Composing and sound design by Koki Lortkipanidze and Irakli Kavsadze. Scenic design by Paata Tsikurishvili and Phil Charlwood. Lighting design by Brian Allard. Costume design by Alison Samantha Johnson. Produced by Synetic Theater. Reviewed by Marshall Bradshaw.