In Synetic Theater’s new, languorously paced “Don Quixote,” the conversations among Miguel de Cervantes’s characters slowly dribble out, as if their thoughts were being expressed . . . while . . . they . . . are . . . trying . . . to . . . digest . . . frozen . . . bagels.
The strangely halting patterns are apparent nowhere so confoundingly as in the performance of Dan Istrate, whose Don Quixote stares out at us blankly, striking gallant poses. “I am a traveling knight-errant,” Istrate declares in a voice at once clear and monotonic. The zombie-like manner in which he plods through the self-appointed knight’s misadventures — intended, one assumes, to heighten the comedy — turns one of literature’s most compelling figures into a ridiculous cipher.
If the portrayal does the story no favors, neither do the ministrations of director Paata Tsikurishvili and adapter Roland L. Reed in the robotically uninvolving production in Synetic’s space in Crystal City. Even Irina Tsikurishvili’s choreography, a reliable fallback on the occasions when other elements of a Synetic show go awry, feels on this one perfunctory.
Catching its breath, perhaps, after two dialogue-free triumphs — a waterborne “King Arthur” and a fools-filled, apocalyptic “King Lear” — Synetic may well be coming down with a touch of inspiration fatigue. The depth of the company’s talent has evolved now to such an impressive point that artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili is able to alternate star players from show to show, giving some of his astounding workhorses a rest. Perhaps by the end of a season, they all need it.
As he also likes to alternate his wordless treatments of the classics with offerings that contain dialogue, Tsikurishvili needs scripts whose vocabulary can coexist in something more than a bland civil union with the troupe’s exuberant movement. That remains an elusive goal, as Reed’s “Quixote” demonstrates. A Synetic weakness on spoken evenings has been in the fullness of its characters. The Tsikurishvilis have highly developed senses of irony and dramatic tension, but beyond an instinct for stylized exaggeration, the gallery of personalities they lead to the stage is rather skeletal.
So the Quixote, the Sancho Panza (Ryan Sellers) and the Aldonza (Natalie Berk) you see are all that you get in Reed’s one-dimensional treatment. Almost nothing is illuminated about the emotional lives of these eternal characters, about how the lowborn Aldonza might be elevated by Quixote’s idealization of her, or how Sancho’s narrow worldview might be changed by his devotion to a dreamer. And from beginning to end, Istrate wears an animatronic look of mild surprise, the countenance of a puppet hero.
It’s not only Istrate who recites at half-speed. Many, if not all, of the actors take lengthy beats between lines — perhaps thinking that taking one’s time conveys grandeur. The effect only intensifies the play’s airlessness, a feeling that is not mitigated by the energetic dancing. With the exception of an inventive conjuring with actors’ legs of the windmill at which Quixote tilts, much of the choreography serves only as a frenzied counterpoint to the limp dialogue.
A tiny flavor of Spain or Spanishness might also have relieved some of the tedium. You find no hint in the desultory scenery by Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili or the music by Konstantine Lortkipanidze.
Given their illustrious record, Synetic’s plucky imagineers will no doubt sample the creative winds and tack soon in some novel and interesting direction. This is a company that cannot afford to stand still. And for this Quixote, stillness is the most insidious enemy of all.
by Roland L. Reed, based on the novel by Miguel de Cervantes. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Sets and costumes, Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; sound, Irakli Kavsadze; original music, Konstantine Lortkipanidze. With Alex Mills, Francesca Jandasek, John Robert Keena. About 2 hours. Through July 3 at Synetic at Crystal City,
1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. Visit www.synetictheater.org or call 800-494-8497.