On Stage: Picture Perfect

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Synetic turns Wilde’s gothic “Picture of Dorian Gray” inside out.

Synetic's "Picture of Dorian Gray. (Courtesy photo)

Synetic’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” (Courtesy photo)

Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is an especially eerie, haunting work of literature — the story of a vain, beautiful young man (Dorian Gray) who is jealous of a recently painted portrait of him because he will grow old and lose his looks while the portrait will remain unchanged. He wishes for the opposite and that wish is fulfilled. Synetic Theater has taken on Wilde’s gothic tale in a brilliant, mesmerizing and unique production.

In a twist to the story, Synetic’s creative founding director, Paata Tsikurishvili, has the painting portrayed by an actor (Philip Fletcher). In Wilde’s novel, Dorian spirals into a hedonistic, cruel lifestyle. His transgressions begin to deface the portrait, but he remains as beautiful as he was when it was painted. In a 1945 black-and-white film of the story, the portrait (the only thing in color) was such a grotesque reflection of Dorian’s soul that it was difficult to view.

Synetic Theater is all about movement and IrinaTsikurishvili’s inventive choreography takes the production beyond a morality tale, and through dance, effectively explores the darker undercurrents. Dorian, artfully portrayed by a darkly handsome Dallas Tolentino, spurns the obvious love of Basil, the artist (Robert Bowen Smith) and is drawn into the thrall of the suave sophistication of Lord Henry (Joseph Carlson), a hedonist and a truly dissolute, amoral man. He too is enamored by Dorian’s beauty and guides him into a demimonde life of drugs and dissipation.

Dorian wrestles with his inner good and evil. He falls in love with Sybil (Rachael Jacobs), a delicate actress whose profession was considered beneath men of Dorian’s social position. Smitten with her and her brilliant performances, Dorian takes Lord Henry and Basil to watch her act. On that evening, Sybil gives a terrible performance because her mind is only on her love for Dorian, the only thing now important to her.

Dorian tells her that her performance embarrassed him in front of his friends and that he now wants nothing to do with her and will never see her again. Sybil is devastated by his coldness and commits suicide. Lord Henry easily convinces Dorian that her death means nothing. But Dorian’s indifference begins the corrosive effect on the portrait.

Paata Tsikurishvili’s idea of having an actor portray a painting is much more than a theatrical gimmick. Some of the most powerful scenes of this production are when Dorian and his picture move in graceful, almost wrestling-like movements as Dorian travels down into his own inferno. The two men hauntingly mirror each other, establishing their dependent, imprisoning relationship.

The sinister hopelessness of the story is enhanced by the minimalist set designed by Daniel Pinha. It consists of several screens where indefinable misty movements are projected in an effective multimedia design by Riki K. Then, at the end of Act 1, large Plexiglas squares are moved to the edge of the stage isolating the actors from the audience. The remarkable Synetic ensemble in orgiastic movements that could have been inspired by Dante, splatter the actors and screens with bright paints as thunderclaps and Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s original music swells, ending the first act. The next act is an emotionally exhausting experience as an aging, still beautiful Dorian is forced to face the reality of the picture that reflects who he really is.

Once again, Synetic has taken a classic and turned it inside out and upside down for a provocative and unexpected theatrical experience.

The Picture of Dorian Gray” continues through Nov. 3 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington, VA 22202, $35 and up, available at 866-811-4111 and online here.

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