by Carmel Morgan
February 6, 2009 -- Rosslyn Spectrum, Arlington, Virginia
The Synetic Theater is known for its very physical performances, which blend acting with dance for a unique style of storytelling. Artistic Director Paata Tsikurishvili studied acting and film in Tbilisi in his native Republic of Georgia, while his wife Irina, Synetic’s choreographer, studied ballet there. This duo brings a wealth of talent to their DC-area company, which includes their son, Vato, as well.
Tsikurishvili set his heights high when he chose to adapt Dante Alighierei’s “Divine Comedy” for the stage. With help from Ben Cunis and Nathan Weinberger, the adaptation is compact, and, as is typical of Synetic’s brand of theater, nearly wordless. The audience is taken on a tour, along with Dante (Ben Cunis), of the well-known circles of Hell. The program notes, however, provide more guidance about these than do the drama’s few spoken passages.
Instead of riveting dialogue, “Dante” presents strong visual elements and expressive movement. The set and costumes, by Anastasia Ryurikov Simes, do an excellent job of conjuring Hell and its inhabitants. The dimly lit stage looks like a cave, which spirals backward (and upward – the stage is deeply titled) like a nautilus, ending in a pair of hidden panels that slide open to reveal angels, demons, and, of course, Beatrice (Natalie Berk), who wears a glittery white ball gown reminiscent of a sale dress from David’s Bridal. While Beatrice’s outfit doesn’t stun, most of the costumes really grab one’s attention. Some of the denizens of Hell sport leather and spiky hair and resemble members of Kiss. Some look like ragamuffins straight out of “Les Misérables,” while others, imaginatively dressed, seem like escapees from Cirque de Soleil. Virgil (Greg Marzullo) appears to be part Medieval royalty, part rock star. The excitement of seeing what the next realm of Hell brings in terms of costumes helps to lighten the otherwise heavy production.
The stage itself is full of surprises. We watch the Gluttons writhe on the ground like live sausages in a pan in tight costumes that remind one of human flesh covered in Saran Wrap. In the end, the Gluttons are literally stuffed through trap doors in the floor. They cleverly disappear like pieces of food forced down one’s throat. Throughout the play, all sorts of creatures and punished souls rise and fall through these openings, adding incredible dimension to the work.
The choreography is somewhat uneven, as is the music by Synetic’s resident composer, Konstantine Lortkipanidze, also a native of Tbilisi, Georgia. One could do without actors raising their hands to their head to show misery or doing slow motion runs to indicate they are moving ahead on their journey. However, the scenes in which cast members flail across the floor in anguish, whirl in a sea of fire, or fight with one another (the attack of the spider-like creatures amazes) are truly brilliant and enthralling to watch. The music is sometimes appropriately but unexpectedly funky, and sometimes dull and gloomy, with pounding chords. The lighting, by Andrew F. Griffin, depicts Hell as a dark place, full of intriguing shadows. The muted light does wonders for catching the glint of an angel’s wings or the luminous bare skin of the Lustful.
Easily the most amusing section of the work portrays the circle of the Fortunetellers and the Sorcerers. Gigantic white figures without heads rush around humorously looking for their severed parts. Once they locate their heads, some stealing and swapping occurs. It’s pure, grotesque fun. In addition, an extremely tall female creature takes in the commotion while fingering a deck of cards. Her middle is misshapen and bulky, while her legs are twisted completely backward, so that her toes point behind her as she faces forward.
The drama falters at times, but the powerful images dazzle throughout. Despite the weighty subject matter, the energy of Synetic’s performers, the creativity of the production, and the circus-like atmosphere make “Dante” a solid entertainment value.