What Victor Hugo did for the Royal Shakespeare Company, he now does for Synetic Theater. That is to say, as the 19th-century French novelist’s “Les Misérables” proved a defining vehicle for that venerable British company, his “Hunchback of Notre Dame” gives a hyper-creative Washington group a source for one of its most beautifully realized productions.
It’s the beguiling unity embodied by Synetic’s “Hunchback” that sets it above some of Artistic Director Paata Tsikurishvili’s other fine shows. The design elements — typified by Anastasia Rurikova Simes’s endlessly elastic modular set, Erik Teague’s nightmare-ready costumes and Brian Allard’s vibrant lighting — lay the groundwork in Synetic’s Crystal City space for Irina Tsikurishvili’s inventive choreography and, hallelujah, several exceptionally rich acting turns.
Chief among these are Irina Kavsadze’s haunting portrayal of dewy Esmeralda, and Vato Tsikurishvili’s physically as well as emotionally compelling performance as the gallant Quasimodo, the cathedral bell-ringer with the hump on his back and lovelorn lump in his throat (Vato being Paata and Irina’s son). Philip Fletcher supplies all the slinky, sinister ambiguity required for the passion-crazed cleric, Frollo, and Robert Bowen Smith capably conveys the flaky quality required for Gringoire, here a musician entangled in Esmeralda’s ever more complicated love life.
Synetic has not always had as much success adapting other types of literature as it has had with wordless, movement-based interpretations of Shakespeare. The Tsikurishvilis’ versions of “King Lear,” enveloped in Felliniesque surreality, and their “Antony and Cleopatra,” an occasion for a sensual pas de deux, were far and away more exciting than evenings inspired by Dante or Mikhail Bulgakov. (Then again, their waterborne account of “King Arthur” was pure liquid pleasure.)Continually in the search of titles they can translate into the company’s dynamically lyrical physical style, the Tsikurishvilis and a company approaching 20 years of productions have been compelled to look beyond the Bard to fill their seasons.
Happily, they and adapter Nathan Weinberger have made the acquaintance of Hugo and his tale of the reviled Quasimodo, who loves an unattainable Roma girl. The story, staged without dialogue, is well suited to the couple, originally from Georgia in the Caucasus region, whose tastes tend toward tales of damaged hearts and benighted souls. Situated among the spires of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, in a labyrinthine set that ingeniously can be divided and reconfigured, Irina Tsikurishvili creates some of her most original dances in some time. The moment, for example, when Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda from captivity, each of her limbs tied to a rope, is thrilling: Vato Tsikurishvili lifts Kavsadze, the ropes still affixed to her arms and legs, and spins her with centrifugal power, until the ropes are flying like helicopter blades.
The choreographer also provides a lilting interlude for Kavsadze and Zana Gankhuyag, the George Mason University senior who plays Phoebus, Esmeralda’s true love; it’s a lovely, lusty encounter between two young Synetic actors who seem naturals as romantic partners. And as the Tsikurishvilis always have in mind some interesting concept for their corps de acrobatic ballet, six company members portray, in delightfully grotesque garb, the cathedral gargoyles, magically made flesh.
Teague devises a look for Quasimodo that artfully accentuates his misshapen head and shoulder, though the rigor of the choreography sorely tests the adhesive that binds it to Vato’s head. Still, it’s an effective prosthetic, in a production that is all about masks. The one Fletcher’s Frollo puts on and takes off constantly suggests the duality in his nature, a set of warring impulses that we’re meant to recognize as being present in some form in all of us.
Konstantine Lortkipanidze, Synetic’s longtime house composer, creates another of his eclectic soundscapes for “Hunchback.” This composition is particularly good at amplifying the personality of individual scenes and characters, of guiding us through the stages of pathos and tragedy. It’s indicative of a company cracking a difficult code, of being able to marry the elements of storytelling through design and gesture, and finding harmony.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, adapted by Nathan Weinberger, based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; set, Anastasia Rurikova Simes; costumes, Erik Teague; movement, Alex Mills; music, Konstantine Lortkipanidze; lighting, Brian Allard; music direction, Irakli Kavsadze; sound, Thomas Sowers; props, Patti Kalil; stage manager, Marley Giggey. With Lee Liebeskind, Tori Bertocci, Anne Flowers, Raven Wilkes, Augustin Beall, Shu-nan Chu. About 95 minutes. Tickets, $35-$60. Through June 11 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. Visit synetictheater.org or call 866-911-4111