The action-packed shows of Synetic Theater always have cinematic flair, but the second act of the company’s new “The Man in the Iron Mask” takes on surprising storytelling depth. The always-superb fights are accompanied by unexpectedly gripping scenes of high melodrama and even flickers of camp; as much as anything yet from Synetic, this has the texture of a good old-fashioned movie.
Even entertaining flicks come with bumps, and the main rub with this sequel to the troupe’s frenetic “Three Musketeers” a few seasons back is that it’s slow to launch. You also won’t mistake this cast for one of the top-flight acting ensembles in town; Synetic’s forte is movement and “wordless” Shakespeare, and this adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas novel features lots of talk.
And yet it’s alive. Adapters Ben and Peter Cunis and director Paata Tsikurishvili respond to this later installment of the Dumas adventures with a deeper sensitivity; where the adventure of “The Three Musketeers” kept pouncing at you like a hyperactive tiger, “The Man in the Iron Mask” generates real intrigue.
Alex Mills doubles wonderfully as both the Sun King Louis XIV and as Phillipe, the long-hidden twin brother whom the jealous Louis jails and torments. If Mills hits the obvious notes of hauteur with Louis, he’s also physically commanding as he thrusts across the stage in sword exercises. His Phillipe, on the other hand, is movingly pitiable — terrified and vulnerable when the righteous musketeers arrive and remove the iron mask from his sun-deprived face.
One of the pleasures of this show is how easily it melds dialogue and action. The story finally kicks into gear when the musketeer Athos, played by Ben Cunis, reads a letter about his son’s misfortune even as we watch it playing out in a gorgeous slow-motion battle. (The fight choreography, typically marked by speed, is by Cunis and Vato Tsikurishvili.) When Athos and Porthos (the gruff Nicklas Aliff) tutor the jittery Phillipe in court deployment so he can pose as Louis, it’s told through an elegant sequence of silent comedy.
“Silent,” as always with Synetic, overlooks the layered music and sound that is practically Hollywood-ready as composer and music editor Konstantine Lortkipanidze stitches together sinister original underscoring and familiar classic melodies. The atmosphere is deeply moody — scenes typically are played in the low light of lanterns cutting through fog — and the period is ably suggested by Erik Teague’s sumptuous costumes.
Still, the surprising thing is the emotional quality of encounters that dive headlong into the plot’s high melodrama. It’s near camp but not quite when Jodi Niehoff’s Queen Anne has to answer to Mills’s Phillipe, and director Tsikurishvili manipulates the movable wall of Daniel Pinha’s set to great effect as the plot’s strands gradually twist together.
Sure, the show offers cartoonish heroics like Aliff’s burly Porthos easily outfighting four swordsmen. It also prominently reboots Synetic’s “Three Musketeers” image of the four noble friends — Athos and Porthos, plus Aramis (Ryan Sellers) and D’Artagnan (Shu-nan Chu) — galloping across the countryside, something that’s wonderfully done as the actors move together like horses. Luckily, there is more behind this “Mask” than just ripping adventure and impressive technique.
The Man in the Iron Mask Script adaptation by Ben and Peter Cunis. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; lights, Brittany Diliberto; sound design, Thomas Sowers. With Irina Kavsadze, Nathan Weinberger, Will Hayes, Peter Pereyra, Zana Gankhuyag, Lee Liebeskind, Lauren Brown, Anna Lane and Tori Bertocci. About 2½ hours. Through June 19 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Crystal City. Tickets $34-$60. Call 866-811-4111 or visit synetictheater.org.