In Crystal City, Synetic Theater presents Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray‘


Joseph Carlson as Lord Henry and Dallas Tolentino as Dorian Gray. Photo by Koko Lanham. (Koko Lanham)

If you’re any kind of fan of horror movies, then you’ve probably taken in a splatter film or two. But a splatter play?

Leave it to the fiendish folks at Synetic Theater to find a way to thrill you with the threat of paint stains. In its seductive and graceful new adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the company uses the raw material of art — namely goopy, drippy paint — as a cool special effect, and in a way that summons Jackson Pollock almost as clearly as it does Wilde.

You may have encountered copious amounts of bodily fluid on a stage if you’ve seen Tracy Letts’s lavishly blood-soaked “Killer Joe” or Martin McDonagh’s equally gore-packed “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.” But Synetic’s “Dorian Gray” wants you to think of splatter as the tool of both a decaying Victorian mind and a creative contemporary one.

Halfway through the show, director Paata Tsikurishvili and set designer Daniel Pinha erect on the stage in Crystal City a plexiglass pen for the paint-slinging that is to come. And for spectators in the first few rows, slickers are provided on the off chance the multi-hued flecks that fly through the air land in one’s lap.

The idea, it seems, in this potent new addition to the Synetic canon, is to take the medium through which Dorian Gray achieves a macabre immortality and virtually rub our noses in it. (The splatter action begins during an orgy scene, which at Synetic is a specialty of the house.) The grotesque tale of a 19th-century Narcissus, whose beautiful portrait ages while he remains eternally young, is activated by art. So in this adaptation by Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger, and choreographed with panache by Tsikurishvili’s wife, Irina, paint is not a neutral compound. It is a tool of the demon world.

Paata Tsikurishvili has tried his hand with chiller theater before, in adaptations of such classic Gothic novels as “Dracula,” “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Frankenstein.” “Dorian Gray” is his best to date in this, er, vein.

Although it runs a little long — 21 / 2 hours, including intermission — the production is fortified by one of the company’s better scripts. That may be due in part to a facile quality in playwright-novelist Wilde’s epigrammatic language and the relative ease with which it becomes the foundation for stage dialogue.

The play is propelled securely, too, on two pairs of broad shoulders: those of Dallas Tolentino, an ensemble member who as Dorian suavely moves up to the starring ranks, and of Philip Fletcher, portraying here in hair dyed black to match Tolentino’s the painted image of Dorian that suffers and withers. Although everyone seems to covet Dorian, from his portraitist (Robert Bowen Smith) to a young Shakespearean actress (Rachael Jacobs) he woos and discards, the most intense affair in this half-danced, half-spoken “Dorian” is the one between Dorian and himself.

And no scenes are more highly charged than those in which Irina Tsikurishvili has Dorian and his tormented image leap and spin in feverish unison. Tolentino and Fletcher are both emblematic of the Synetic style: solidly athletic, able to convey convulsive emotions in explosive bursts. Fletcher, in particular, has been performing yeoman service for Synetic audiences for so long that he has earned the mantle of signature player.

Speaking of style: There’s plenty to admire in the look of Synetic’s “Dorian Gray.” Using what has become a company color palette, costume designer Kendra Rai dresses the cast of 10 in the reds, blacks and whites the Tsikurishvilis favor, stark colors that in lighting designer Colin K. Bills’s accomplished hands radiate danger and hedonism. Pinha’s set picks up the evening’s art-world motif, in a series of frames that are used as screens for projections by Riki K. that resemble panels from a graphic novel.

Once again, a soundscape by composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze — at times romantic, at others nerve-fraying — is used to intensify a sensationalized story. And the makeup the actors apply in Act 2 proves to be an inspired way to reveal how Dorian’s world ages without him.

All of these elements, plus Ben Cunis’s sturdy fight choreography, mingle with special harmony this time around. If any aspect of the production could stand a bit of tweaking, though, it would be in the character of Dorian: We’re not given nearly enough of a window into his nature. “I think it’s sad,” Tolentino’s Dorian says, early on. “As I grow old, this will always remain young. If only it were the other way.” The wish is clearly expressed, but it would be helpful to have a more refined understanding along the way of who Dorian is, and how protracted physical perfection corrupts him.

Even so, “Dorian Gray” reveals that the Tsikurishvilis never stop thinking about how to keep their aesthetic entertainingly fresh, how determined they remain to make a splash. Part of the fun of being a returning patron to Synetic is seeing and hearing familiar elements customized for their latest story. You see, Synetic’s portrait doesn’t seem to fade with age. No, it just keeps getting sharper.

The Picture
of Dorian Gray

adapted and directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; sets, Daniel Pinha; original music, Konstantine Lortkipanidze; lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Kendra Rai; multimedia, Riki K.; fight choreography, Ben Cunis; dramaturgy, Nathan Weinberger; technical director, Phil Charlwood; sound, Irakli Kavsadze and Thomas Sowers. With Vato Tsikurishvili, Kathy Gordon, Mitch Grant, Irina Kavsadze. $15-$75. About 21 / 2 hours. Through Nov. 3 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. Visit www.synetictheater.org
or call 866-811-4111.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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