In his pre-show introduction to Synetic Theater’s new production, “The Madness of Poe,” Director Paata Tsikurishvili jokes that he wanted to start the season with “something light.” Drawing on the work of horror-master Edgar Allan Poe, this new show is instead gorgeously dark, but the darker Synetic goes, the better they are, and this is Synetic at its best.
This is not the company’s first outing with Poe. Synetic previously staged an adaptation of Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” This new version adds a frame story based on the author’s poem, “The Raven.” It also adds Poe himself as a character, called Edgar (Ryan Sellers). And, as in “The Raven,” the story explores themes of tragedy, inspiration, and melancholy.
At the top of the show, Edgar’s writing is getting away from him—literally. His arm appears to write, uncannily independent from his sleeping self. A flurry of papers appears to trap him, as does his grief over his lost love, Lenore (Megan Khaziran). “I cannot write,” he declares. Matters are made more interesting by the arrival of the Raven, in an incredible performance by Maryam Najafzada. With long metallic talons flashing, she’s the stuff of nightmares, or maybe the start of one. Symbolizing death, grief, depression, or all of these, she haunts Edgar throughout the story.
…the darker Synetic goes, the better they are, and this is Synetic at its best.
Unlike many of Synetic’s productions, the show is not wordless, but the script seems carefully cultivated. Use of Poe’s beautiful poetry enhances the moody atmosphere, and dialogue is kept spare, creating clear-cut storytelling, as when Edgar’s surreal reverie is interrupted by a letter from his friend, Roderick Usher, begging him to visit.
Visit he does, arriving at the mausoleum-like house, described as “a place where all things seem to be standing still.” Some of those things are the haunted statuary of Phil Charwood’s set design, made spectacularly eerie by Doug Del Pizzo’s lighting, and becoming stranger still when they seem to come to life.
The house’s human—but also haunted—inhabitants are Roderick (Alex Mills) and Madeline (Nutsa Tediashvili). They are siblings who have a mysterious and tortured relationship with each other and the legacy of their family. Roderick welcomes Edgar as a distraction from his own worries, chiefly his sister’s strange illness, described vaguely as a “settled lethargy.” The dialogue allows Alex Mills to ably communicate Roderick’s “restrained hysteria,” as the actor practically vibrates with anxiety. Edgar, as played by Ryan Sellers, is an excellent, and a grounding foil for Roderick’s increasing instability.
Nutsa Tediashvili as Madeline rounds out the solid cast with a visceral turn as the doomed Madeline. Hers is a particularly physical performance, marked by the character’s horrific seizures, which leave her writhing in pain, heightened interludes that seem to point at the repressed agony felt by all the characters.
As with most Synetic productions, much of the emotional story is told through expressive movement and dance, courtesy of veteran choreographer, Irina Tsikurishvili, and associate choreographer, Najafzada. The spookiness of the Usher home is evoked through surreal sequences of the statuary conspiring, and in an intense duet between Roderick and Madeline. Her silent scream of frustration speaks volumes about her fear for, and of, her brother. The score effectively uses anxious strings and traditional piano, revving to pulsing electronic beats for the show’s more maximalist, goosebump-raising dance sequences.
Things fall apart for the trio, as Roderick descends into depravity, resulting in a delightfully ghoulish resolution. The dark implosion of the Ushers pushes Edgar back to where he was in the beginning—confronting the Raven, his fears, and possibly embracing darkness as a source of inspiration.
While the show’s themes of loneliness, isolation and sorrow will certainly evoke parallels with the time we’re continuing to live through, the show is anything but somber. It’s a chilling, thrilling celebration of Poe’s “fantastic terrors.”
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission.
Advisory per the theater: The Madness of Poe features mature themes including scenes depicting intimacy, incest, sexual assault, seizures, mental illness, drug use, and strobe effects. If this were a movie, it would be rated PG-13.
“The Madness of Poe” runs through Sunday, October 31, 2021, presented by Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, VA 22202. For more information and tickets go to their website.