By Jordan Wright (Photo/Koko Lanham)
If I told you Synetic Theater was producing one of its much-lauded plays from the Silent Shakespeare series, you might have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into.
You also would have to wait until early next year when the theater reprises two of those plays — its original production of “Hamlet,” “The Rest is Silence,” and its latest interpretation of “Twelfth Night.”
In the same vein, if I were to describe “The Picture of Dorian Gray” as comedic or compellingly poignant, then too, you might have a notion of what sort of an evening to expect. But director Paata Tsikurishvili likes to disabuse his audience of either complacency or expectation.
As in the book by Oscar Wilde, Dorian is a man obsessed with youth and beauty. A supreme narcissist, he uses a portrait of himself by his artist friend Basil to take on the aging process while he remains young and virile. When Dorian meets the diabolical Lord Henry, whose affection for him seems boundless, his sense of morality eludes him and he descends into a life of debauchery.
“There’s only one way to get rid of temptation, and that is to give in to it,” Lord Henry urges, in one of his many instructions to Dorian.
In Synetic’s version, the painting becomes a living, interactive character, first luring — and later haunting — the murderous Dorian as he rages against evil and death. Witticisms from Wilde are scattered throughout the dialogue and usually delivered by the appropriately snide and derogatory Lord Henry.
Does art imitate life? It does here. When Dorian and Henry go to the theater to see an actress whom the young man has fallen for, they become part of an audience — seated on benches facing us. It’s a clever concept that employs the method of “topsy-turvy,” a popular device of the period.
In another nod to early stagecraft, lighting designer Colin K. Bills employs vaudeville-style footlights and spotlights. The green and yellow light is reminiscent of the absinthe fairy, highlighting Lord Henry’s evil influence.
Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s original score uses electronica to create an amorphous, any-century mood, while set designer Daniel Pinha brings the stage closer to the audience with clear, interlocking acrylic panels employed as a stage surround. In an erotic sadomasochistic scene — with a giant hookah as the central prop — vinyl-clad dancers writhe in a drug-induced frenzy in a virtual den of iniquity. The panels screen the audience from the flying spatters of black-light paint emanating from the orgy contained within its walls.
It is the contradiction of the straitlaced Victorian society in which Dorian and his friends cavort and the dissolute underbelly of that society that present the perfect palette for the spectacular beauty of Synetic’s dancers and their sinuous movements.
Dallas Tolentino is a magnetic and intriguing Dorian, a dandy seeking reformation and redemption without the necessary willpower. “We live in the native land of the hypocrite,” he laments.
Joseph Carlson lends a marvelously Faustian swagger to the soulless Lord Henry, a proper English gentleman in the business of the corruption of youths, while Philip Fletcher plays Dorian’s portrait with astonishing physical prowess and subtlety. Robert Bowen Smith, who gives the drama the requisite good-to-evil ratio, elegantly plays the pure-of-heart Basil.
“The Picture of Dorian Gray,” as seen by dramaturge Nathan Weinberger, is an erotic, Freudian-fueled portrait of Victorian England literally laid bare. It is a circus riot of id, ego and super ego dished up in an exotic maelstrom of physicality as only Synetic Theater, with its magnificent, classically trained Russian dancers, can imagine.
“The Picture of Dorian Gray” runs through November 3 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. For tickets and information, call 1-866-811-4111 or visit www.synetictheater.org.