One man, two performances: Mills is a tour-de-force Jekyll and Hyde


Alex Mills, above with Brittany O’Grady, plays boths the male leads in Synetic Theater's “Jekyll and Hyde.” (Johnny Shryock/JOHNNY SHRYOCK)
September 26, 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.

Jekyll and Hyde

Adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” by Nathan Weinberger and Paata Tsikurishvili. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; set, Daniel Pinha; costumes, Chelsey Schuller; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; original music, Konstantine Lortkipanidze; sound, Lortkipanidze and Irakli Kavsadze; multimedia design, Riki Kim. With Darren Marquardt, Chris Galindo, Jace Casey, Karen A. Morales-Chacana, Emily Whitworth, Austin Johnson, Julian Elijah Martinez. About 90 minutes. Through Oct. 21 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.synetictheater.org.

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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