Synetic Theater in Crystal City, Arlington, VA; September 27, 2013

Carmel Morgan

Dallas Tolentino as Dorian Gray (front) and Randy Snight as Portrait (back) Photo © Koko Lanham

Dallas Tolentino as Dorian Gray (front) and Randy Snight as Portrait (back)
Photo © Koko Lanham

It’s been a while since I’ve actually reviewed a Synetic Theater production, but I haven’t stopped attending their shows.  I admit I’m a little bit addicted!  Washington, DC’s Synetic Theater is a unique company that presents plays in a highly physical style, often without words.  They’re best known locally for their magical wordless performances of Shakespeare.  The company also has offered performances with spoken lines, but even when speaking, members of Synetic maintain their fierce physicality, which particularly appeals to the dancer in me.  I can’t recommend them enough and encourage folks who find themselves in DC to check them out.  In the midst of a government shutdown, as DC is at the moment I’m writing this, I can’t think of a better way for tourists to spend their time, since most of the museums and monuments are now off limits.

To open their 2013-2014 season, Synetic chose Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” a literary adaptation with spooky overtones perfect for a date night around Halloween.  According to program notes, Synetic Theater’s founding artist director, Paata Tsikurishvili, thought that Wilde’s novel was the “perfect fit” due to, among other things, its timeless story, its “heavily stylized, supernatural qualities,” and its poetry, which could be reflected in the company’s “poetic physicality.”  I have to agree.  “The Picture of Dorian Gray” blended a compelling universal tale with Synetic’s amazing passion and signature movement (choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili, Paata’s wife).

Synetic chooses its collaborators wisely and frequently uses the same talented folks.  For “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the collaborators included composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze, lighting designer Colin K. Bills, fight choreographer Ben Cunis, sound designer Thomas Sowers, multimedia designer Riki K, costume designer Kendra Rai, set designer Daniel Pinha, and dramaturg Nathan Weinberger, all of whom are veterans of Synetic productions.  There was not a weak point in this strong creative team.  I especially liked the set design, which consisted primarily of large square screens onto which various repeated images were projected.  The moving images, many of which seemed to be trippy close-ups of things in nature, certainly helped to set the eerie mood.  And the wildly flung neon paint that splattered later in the production added a lot as well in light of the fact that the play is about a painting!

Randy Snight as Portrait (front) and Dallas Tolentino as Dorian Gray (back) Photo © Koko Lanham

Randy Snight as Portrait (front) and Dallas Tolentino as Dorian Gray (back)
Photo © Koko Lanham

Most of the actors also would be familiar to Synetic fans.  Stepping forward as the lead was Dallas Tolentino as Dorian Gray, who did a great job being both innocently charming and wickedly vain.  In a twist I expected from Synetic, the portrait was played by Philip Fletcher, who gave a powerful performance without words.  Joseph Carlson as Lord Henry, I felt, was terrific as the sinister corruptor of Dorian, and Robert Bowen Smith made a sweet Basil, utterly adoring of the subject of the portrait he painted.

Among the themes of the play was twinning – and there was no greater symbol of duality than Dorian Gray, the object of the painting, and his image, the moving portrait.  But there were plenty of other pairings to mull over, too.  For example, the play explored audience versus artist; acting versus reality; and love versus lust.  Here the set and lighting design brilliantly helped embody the theme by capturing mirror images behind and around the large square screens.

One of my favorite moments was when the portrait of Dorian Gray broke loose and came alive after being still for so long.  After Dorian grew cruel, the portrait began to become uglier.  The beautiful white ruffled shirt of the portrait became dirty and tattered.

As for the dancing, the most successful scene was that of a drug-induced orgy.  Synetic has never shied away from being sexy, and “The Picture of Dorian Gray” would definitely earn an “R” rating if it was on the big screen.  In a smoky lounge the actors inhaled opium, undressed, thrusted, writhed, and eventually smeared each other’s bodies with paint, slipping and rubbing all the while, and ending in chokes and screams.

Although I enjoyed the more physical pieces in the performance, I couldn’t help but feel a lack of seamlessness between the spoken parts and the non-speaking sections.  This lack of cohesion isn’t characteristic of Synetic’s wordless productions.  To the contrary, when the entire production is silent, the dancing is a form of speaking.  In “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” occasionally the dancing reminded me of an awkward sudden song in a musical – a little too abrupt for my taste.  Thus, I’m looking forward to Synetic’s next production, Twlefth Night because I assume I’ll get the silent treatment I so love.