Editors' pick

Jekyll & Hyde

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Editorial Review

‘Jekyll and Hyde’ star working double time
By Peter Marks
Thursday, September 27, 2012

The hardest working man in Washington doesn’t sit at a government desk on Capitol Hill or field grounders on the waterfront or whip up elegant embassy dinners on Massachusetts Avenue. No, he clocks in nightly at a theater in a forest of office buildings and pours himself, liquidly and athletically, into a role that is, in every sense of the word, a killer.

The man is Alex Mills, and if you want to be picky about it, he’s pounding his theatrical beat across the river in Crystal City, where he assays the part of a perpetual motion machine in Synetic Theater’s chillingly seductive “Jekyll and Hyde.” Another entry in the company’s popular series of movement-shows without dialogue, this “Jekyll and Hyde” brings almost as much ingenuity in design and stagecraft to the horror genre as Synetic’s water-borne “King Arthur ” did to heroic fables.

The production’s premium level of satisfaction is traceable in major measure to its 23-year-old star, whom director Paata Tsikurishvili has given perhaps the most dominant role in any piece in Synetic’s 11-year history. Mills is onstage virtually nonstop for all 90 diabolically intense minutes of “Jekyll and Hyde.” And sometimes, through digital sleight-of-hand, he is onstage twice at the same time.

When one plays a man divided against himself, just such a technological magic act seems almost de rigueur. Loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 19th-century novella “ Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” this adaptation by Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger places in a murkily modern context the tale of the scientist named Jekyll who turns himself into a monster called Hyde. As conjured by crafty set designer Daniel Pinha, Jekyll’s lab is equipped with both plasma screens and manual typewriters, a suggestion of how ahead of his time his experiments are. And by making the source of his victims a strip club, the adapters add to the story a psychosexual whiff of Jack the Ripper.

The gyrations and muscularity of Irina Tsikurishvili’s choreography heighten, as always, the tension and watchability, and help to make “Jekyll and Hyde” an infinitely more satisfying excursion into chiller theater than the company’s 2006 version of “Frankenstein,” which used dialogue and wrestled rather laboriously with the original novel’s moral questions. The Tsikurishvilis here concentrate more expressively on how to translate into physical terms the visceral elements of horror.

As has become customary, too, in almost all of their spoken and wordless pieces, they use the music of their fellow Georgian and house composer, Konstantine Lortkipanidze, whose fusion style has frequently seemed a fine match for the starkness or ebullience of the Tsikurishvilis’ adaptations. On this occasion, the composer, with additional music by Gia Kancheli, reinforces the sense of a splintered identity with musical fragments and abrupt shifts in tone and rhythm.

But it’s the angelic-looking Mills, whose elasticity and acrobatic talent established him at a tender age as an avatar for Synetic’s gymnastic theatricality, who holds this project together. In Chelsey Shuller’s heavy costume, designed in a mode that might be described as Victorian-hip, Mills’s Jekyll is a science nerd in a lab where the tubes and screens bubble and throb: You can tell he is splashing around dangerously in the deep end of the gene pool.

Although Jekyll has a fiancee (the graceful Brittany O’Grady), his transformation into the sexually aggressive Hyde is triggered by a celebratory visit with his cigar-smoking pal Lanyon (the solid Peter Pereyra) to the strip club -- for what may be the company’s first-ever number for pole dancers. There, a ponytailed stripper played with an aptly adventurous swagger by Rebecca Hausman catches the eye of gentle Jekyll and, after Jekyll injects himself with the secret formula, the sadistic Hyde.

The Tsikurishvilis pull patented tricks out of their bags for the hyper-violent fight scenes. But they come up with a terrific way to dramatize the duality of Jekyll’s nature: The big TV screen in his lab is, it seems, permeable, and both of Jekyll’s selves can pass in and out of it. And, at a climactic moment, both find themselves trapped inside the screen, two consciousnesses fighting for control of one body.

Mills’s romantic bearing casts Jekyll in a more sympathetic light than might be possible with a less engaging actor; his extraordinary exertions are little short of heroic. The energy he expends makes you wonder if, in fact, Synetic really is employing a pair of Alex Millses.

PREVIEW: Oh, Mr. Hyde, you sexy beast!
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, September 14, 2012

Anyone who has seen Synetic Theater’s chiseled performers silently slither their way through “Othello” and “Macbeth” knows that the troupe has a dark streak.

When the weather turns and Halloween approaches? That’s when the company puts fear into overdrive, giving audiences a chill with such fare as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” or Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”

“I love dark things. That creepiness and the dark humor, that’s the perfect lens for Halloween,” says Artistic Director Paata Tsikurishvili. This season’s opener is “Jekyll & Hyde,” Synetic’s new silent interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” “It’s not vampires,” Tsikurishvili says of the show that opens for previews Tuesday, “but it’s close.”

In the production, a modern American town is stalked by a strange, brutal killer known only as Mr. Hyde. When Mr. Hyde is found to have mysterious connections to the well-respected doctor Henry Jekyll, the townspeople learn the true nature of Jekyll’s experiments.

As he began to conceive of a movement-based “Jekyll & Hyde,” Tsikurishvili was consumed not only by the tale’s Victorian roots, but also by its morbid warning about science gone awry. Tsikurishvili envisioned a dark world that would buzz with the tension of conservatism bumping up against change. Today, Jekyll’s experiments might stir more controversy than cloning and stem-cell research, two other examples of “science,” he says, “plus moral problems.”

But the company, noted for the innovative ways it uses its ensemble (it won a Helen Hayes Award for outstanding ensemble five years in row), faced one challenge: “Jekyll & Hyde” would require actor Alex Mills to play two characters, at times simultaneously.

“It’s hard enough to take a text and have to create a character who’s purely physical. But with this show, it’s not one, but two. . . . It’s double the amount of work to create the character,” says Mills, whose biggest roles with the company have included Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Romeo in the remount of Synetic’s popular “Romeo and Juliet.”

“Jekyll is tense,” Mills adds. “He’s thinking about the experiment he has to do, he’s more tense and uptight. Hyde -- and we’re not doing the monster makeup -- he’s cool, and he’s sexy and he’s confident.”

For “Jekyll,” the company is abandoning its signature gothic aesthetic. Goth, Tsikurishvili says, “has character; it has depth.” Guy-liner, leather gloves and skintight pants have been reliable motifs in Synetic’s silent adaptations -- clear-as-day signals of characters’ questionable moral character.

The look the troupe chose for “Jekyll,” however, is steampunk, the surreal Victorian-meets-industrial look that’s come into vogue recently.

The company has long made its own slinky costumes, but this time, Tsikurishvili says, Synetic bought outfits and began adding the accessories, including goggles and modern shoes, to achieve the steampunk look. The colors, he says, are “a little rusty, a little metallic.”

But even without the black leather, Mills says with a laugh, Synetic hasn’t lost its sexy edge. Among the obsessions haunting the doctor? A penchant for strip clubs.