There seems to be a vogue for Oscar Wilde these days, and it’s exciting to see companies that want to give audiences new, innovative stagings of the Victorian aesthete’s work. Those who enjoyed Scena Theater’s spartan, actor-centered version of Salome this past summer can now turn, with great anticipation, to the high-tech extravaganza that is Synetic Theater’s production of The Picture of Dorian Gray, adapted to the stage by Nathan Weinberger. Set to run through the month of October it is a truly sexy, gothic tale perfect for the Halloween season. Paata Tsikurishvili, Director and Synetic CEO, continues to pull all out the stops as he stretches the company’s vision further, for the most part with brilliant results.
Wilde’s novel follows the fortunes of Dorian Gray, a naïve and attractive young man who is seduced by the allures of hedonism—as is personified by Lord Henry, one of Wilde’s most amusing characters and yet (hardly coincidentally) one of his most satanic. Henry’s mind, bent as it always is towards pleasure, is revealed throughout Act 1 through a series of highly amusing epigrams, zingers that can still bring down the house 120 years after they first hit the page. Gray poses for a portrait to be painted by his devoted friend Basil; but the artist renders him with so much passion and commitment that a curious mutual transformation occurs between portrait and subject. As a result the real Gray is free to pursue a life of pure pleasure, remaining eternally youthful, while his privately-hung portrait reveals Gray’s true age, along with clear evidence of his spiritual decay.
…the high-tech extravaganza that is Synetic Theater’s production of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray. ‘
Dan Pinha has created a set decked out with numerous projection screens, which are back-lit in the opening scene with gilded palatial architecture symbolic of Gray’s youth and prospects. As Gray undergoes his transformation and gives in to his darker appetites the video projections switch to black-and-white, with a correspondingly darker content. Riki K’s videos, skillfully assembled, create a truly unsettling series of images—grasping hands, naked eyes, etc.—that bring to my mind Luis Bunuel’s surrealistic masterpiece, “The Andalusian Dog.” The lighting designer, Colin K. Bills, manages to work his way around these screens and succeeds in creating the appropriate air of mystery and the supernatural throughout the show; composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze, meanwhile, provides an effective score that accompanies and punctuates the action through all its many moods.
Like many Synetic productions, Dorian Gray uses a combination of dialogue and vivid action; and although the early exposition scenes require a lot of chatter, we are rewarded by a series of vivid mimed sequences once Gray—the energetic, haunted Dallas Tolentino—bites the apple of temptation and proceeds to rip through the urban scene with all its pleasures. Joseph Carlson, who intimidated audiences as the fierce prophet Iokanaan in Scena’s Salome, reveals a more subtle and dangerous side as Lord Henry, the Mephistopheles to Gray’s Faust. As Gray’s painter and devoted friend Basil, Robert Bowen Smith provides us with the spiritual center of the piece. Basil’s romantic longing for Gray, although more explicit in Wilde’s original, is tamped down here; but Smith makes clear that his love for Gray, in whatever form we choose to take it, is sincere. And that sincerity, of course, proves to be Basil’s undoing.
One of the many successful innovations here is Tsikurishvili’s creation of the role of the Portrait itself; the Portrait’s movements track, step by step, Gray’s true depravity. As performed by Philip Fletcher the Portrait’s story becomes as compelling as Gray’s own, and Tsikurishvili manages to create a fascinating symbiotic relationship between the two. Rachel Jacobs also provides a compelling performance as Sibyl Vane, the innocent actress who is destined to become Gray’s first victim; Sybil’s death sets in motion the tawdry excesses of the playboy’s later life.
True to the period, Tsikurishvili portrays the Victorian era’s drugs of choice—Absinthe, the liquor known as “The Green Fairy” because of its hallucinogenic effects, and Opium, then smoked in long pipes, and whose praises were sung even by British intellectuals. Each inspires a specific movement sequence, and one can hope that there wasn’t too much (ahem) research involved in creating them.
The production features Synetic’s signature style of movement, and—thoroughly appropriate for this tale—elements of sexual abandon that veer wildly from pleasure to murder. One nice effect comes from a hastily-erected clear plastic screen, which encloses the cast for a steamy scene at the end of Act 1; the separation from the audience creates the right elements of claustrophobia and menace for all that takes place behind it. The eroticism and violence of the scene are enhanced by brightly-colored paints that are poured, splattered and smeared on actors and screen alike. The effectiveness of this device wanes, however, when the screen remains up throughout Act 2; given the importance of Gray’s spiritual decline and his betrayal of those around him, it makes little sense to cut off the audience’s access to him; Tolentino and his stage partners still need to speak, but must now do so from a distance even at those moments when we need to keep him close. And although leaving the screen in place does allows Tsikurishvili yet one more splash of bright color at the play’s climax, it hardly seems worth the loss of intimacy.
When first published, one critic condemned Dorian Gray as “a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” To his credit, Paata has given us nearly every ounce of putrefaction required; although the homoerotic elements are only hinted at here, Synetic’s production offers a thoroughly engrossing passage into the darker recesses of the soul, its ecstasies and fears, and its ultimate need for redemption.
Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes with intermission.
Advisory: This production contains simulated nudity, sexual content and drug use and is recommended for ages 16 and up.
The Picture of Dorian Gray plays at Synetic Theatre, Crystal City, 1800 S. Bell Street, Arlington VA, through November 3. Tickets can be ordered by calling 866-811-4111 or logging into here.