‘Tis the season for some Poe. With Netflix’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Synetic Theater’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” audiences and creatives alike seem to be ready for new twists on tried-and-true stories. Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories have continued to grip readers with an icy fist a hundred years after their original publication. The macabre material and perpetual sword of Damocles hanging over the protagonist’s head always make for a spooky, good time. But what happens when, literally, the very heart of one of Poe’s stories is supplanted in favor of a new concept?
…gloriously successful in its technical elements and the artists involved should be lauded for a beautifully executed show.
Synetic Theater Company’s adaptation of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” directed by Paata Tsikurishvili, is a thoroughly mixed bag. Casting Alex Mills as Edgar, the beleaguered caretaker of Irakli Kavsadze’s Old Man, was inspired. Mills is a gifted storyteller, strikingly thoughtful in his world building in such a way as to force the audience to see through his eyes. He channels his athleticism as he circulates the set like it’s a nervous system, injecting each prop with meaning and pushing on his environment like it’s one giant, pressure point. The costumes are wonderful and designer Erik Teague’s frilly and frightening vulture concept was spot-on.
Daniel Pinha’s set design is gorgeous in its gothic realness, looming above the action like a cross between your grandmother’s basement and a haunted mailroom. Gaps in the towering shelves were cleverly built into the clutter. This allows Mills and the ensemble to treat the roving set pieces like a jungle gym, often popping out into the action. Unfortunately, Irina Tsikurishvili’s choreography fell short of Mills’ talent and clashed with Pinha’s dynamic set rather than harnessing it. The score, composed by Koki Lortkipanidze, takes inspiration from industrial and classical music and focuses on repetitive chords to convey Edgar and the Old Man’s futile struggle against insanity. The repetitive nature of the score leaves plenty of room for creative experimentation, but Irina Tsikurishvili opted to use pedestrian movement to fill the music.
A primary example was the first scene when Edgar and the Old Man’s relationship was established. We should instantly know how each character feels about the other and the choreography could have aided in this. Instead, the Old Man throws several books on the ground and paints them, seemingly for no reason. Later in the scene, Edgar and the Old Man slide into a short bout of choreography that seemed to say, “we just can’t get through to each other.” This was a nice change, but much too late in the scene. If Tsikurishvili had cut the fat from the first fifteen minutes of the show, the playing field would’ve opened up for better ideas. It was difficult to become immersed in the plot due to jarring transitions from pure choreography to actors simply walking around. If the action isn’t driven by the music and the score doesn’t inform the choreography, there is a disconnect.
In Poe’s story, the heart of the Old Man continues to beat even as Edgar buries it under the floorboards of his home and denies his culpability to the visiting constables. The beating heart symbolizes Edgar’s guilt, and the most interesting part of the story lies in reading his thoughts as he unravels under the pressure and realization of his sins. The horror of watching a human being reduced to their basest instincts is the most interesting aspect of this tale. It is baffling that Synetic chose to remove the heart from the plot. There is no beating heart brutally wrenched from the chest of an old man. Instead, Edgar stabs a giant automotive eye after chasing it across the stage during five minutes of music. The audience was promised hair-raising scares and a chilling atmosphere but those elements were replaced by Edgar stabbing at a metaphor. This production chose to make the Old Man’s vulture-like eye the crux of the story which was a huge misstep. Despite the muddy premise, this production was gloriously successful in its technical elements and the artists involved should be lauded for a beautifully executed show.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes with one intermission.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” runs through November 5, 2023 at Synetic Theater Company, 1800 S Bell St, Arlington VA 22202. For tickets and more information, call the Box Office at 703-824-8060 or go online.