The Divine Comedy

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Editorial Review

Synetic's Spin on 'Dante': Well, Hell, What's the Point?

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, Feb. 14, 2009

We can confirm for you now that, yup, Hades is hot, hot, hot. Well, the bodies are, anyway. In "Dante," a slithering new adaptation of portions of "The Divine Comedy," Synetic Theater takes us on a house tour of hell, where the souls of the condemned don't merely writhe and wriggle. They twist and shake and rattle and roll, to the S&M vibes of techno music and whips being cracked.

"Dante" rubs out the distinctions between theater and dance as energetically as any show in this restless company's history. Which does not fully explain why the 100-minute piece at Rosslyn Spectrum moves and moves and moves some more but never gets up much steam, storywise. With Dante (Ben Cunis) and his underworldly guide Virgil (Greg Marzullo), an audience descends the penitential circles of the 14th-century Florentine poet's portrait of the afterlife.

The journey, however, entails little more than a sexy assault on the senses. Synetic, with its addictively watchable athleticism, often manages in its treatments of classic plays and novels to isolate an acutely tragic or sentimental dimension. Even in works as challenging to physicality as Poe's cerebral "Fall of the House of Usher," director Paata Tsikurishvili and his choreographer wife, Irina, have found ways to map out kinetic routes to the stage.

Although the Tsikurishvilis once again develop some dynamic snapshots, the album in this case feels inert. Part of the problem is that Dante's episodic poem -- which lays out the perverse hierarchy of hell, describing the sins and identifying the sinners at each progressively more depraved circle -- does not have an innately dramatic structure. (The best adaptation I've seen, a staged version of a translation by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, gave more vivid personality to individual miscreants of the netherworld.)

Here, the passage of Dante gathering insight into the meaning of mercy and justice -- as he laments the loss of his beloved Beatrice (Natalie Berk) -- comes across as little more than the stepping into one nightmarish vignette after another. (Most of "Dante" is taken from "The Inferno" cantos of "The Divine Comedy.") By the eighth or ninth interpretively danced manifestation of hellish torment, you long for the faces of the actors to reflect something other than agony.

It's no help that the spare script, attributed to Cunis, Nathan Weinberger and Paata Tsikurishvili, sounds as if it were parroting one of those vintage muscle-flexing "Hercules" flicks. "Hypocrisy holds a special place in the bowels of hell!" one of the characters intones operatically. Trying to make an observation such as this sound natural, what really is an actor supposed to do?

The bulk of the evening's inspiration comes in pure exertion: the execution of Irina Tsikurishvili's demanding choreography. The 17 actors of "Dante" seem to be in constant, grueling motion, tumbling in and out of trap doors, leaping onto one another's backs, somersaulting and tossing and even contorting. The showmanship at times is impressive, as if you're watching Synetic's pageant of pain, or what you might call Cirque de Sade.

In one especially impressive show of strength, the Tsikurishvilis' teenage son Vato, playing an angel dispatched to fend off giant spiders, appears able to lift each of the insect-actors with a single arm. Several other sequences offer surprising effects: One circle of hell features distorted bodies, including the torso of a woman perched on legs turned 180 degrees in the wrong direction. In another scene, actors cluster with arms outstretched every-which-way to form a naked tree from which a suicide will hang.

Speaking of naked: Just so you know, there is a bit of artful nudity. Despite this, "Dante" might be the most costume-intensive show the careful-with-a-buck company has ever conceived. Anastasia Ryurikov Simes -- who also designed the cool, cavelike set of concentric jagged circles -- uses gauze, plastic and fiery red fabric to fashion distinct looks for each steppingstone of hell. Lucifer, in the guise of ethereally pliable Philip Fletcher, is decked out like a maitre d' in a leather bar; up above, the angels wear wings out of a Renaissance painting.

Synetic's company composer, Konstantine Lortkipanidze, is credited here as creator of both the show's score and its "music design"; in either event, his work gives Synetic an aural signature. On this occasion, you can hear the suffering of the damned in virtually every chord.

The physically accomplished Cunis and Marzullo, dressed in tightfitting tunics and long skirts, have the burden of trying to add some layer of humanity to the tale. But "Dante" accords them little chance to crystallize their connection or to react with anything more than wonder or chagrin. We onlookers have something of the same problem, for the production asks of us a range of emotional response that is far too narrow.

Dante, an adaptation of Dante Alighieri's "The Divine Comedy" by Ben Cunis, Nathan Weinberger and Paata Tsikurishvili. Directed by Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; fight choreography, Cunis. With Elizabeth van den Berg, Scott Brown, Salma Qarnain, Ryan Sellers, Chris Galindo. About 1 hour 40 minutes.