Review: ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at Synetic Theater

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Haunting is the word that quickly came to mind as I sat, mesmerized, rediscovering a classic of literature I thought I knew from reading print on a page and from the movies. But, oh my, Synetic Theater’s dark, expressionistic, dialogue-free take on Victor Hugo’s nearly two-century old The Hunchback of Notre Dame simply swept me along. I was carried on the crest of huge wave into the turmoil of dangerous religious and carnal obsessions, scrambling together, hand-in-hand, with a most unlikely hero.

Synetic’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is exceptionally fresh and appealing – especially for those, like me, who want rough edges, sharp points, and deeper substance to go with some of their entertainment choices.

You may know The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a gothic thriller from your own youth. Here is a quick synopsis: It is set in a medieval Paris with the Cathedral of Notre Dame looming at the epicenter. The production follows the unloved, deformed Notre Dame bell-ringer Quasimodo as he wrestles with the cruelty of others. Even Frollo, his adoptive father and priest, often shows more brutality than caring.

Philip Fletcher as Frollo (left) with Vato Tsikurishvili as Quasimodo (right). Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Along the way, with alternating scenes of carnival joy and male rough-housing, there are moments when the innocent Quasimodo is assaulted, framed for a crime he did not commit and jailed. He is unable to protect himself from society’s mean-spiritedness. Through his many trials and tribulations, he tries to protect a lovely young woman, Esmeralda, who faces her own assaults, though of a sexual nature. She becomes the one person to show Quasimodo decency and kindness. Ah, but Frollo has an eye for Esmeralda, even if he is a priest under vows. And so do other Parisian men. What happens are flare-ups that could be ripped from contemporary headlines as power meets decency, as society confronts dealing with a deep, forbidden love; leading to riot and death.

Synetic sets the table for its Hunchback of Notre Dame with the adaptation by veteran company member Nathan Weinberger. He captured the essence of Hunchback without a word of dialogue spoken.

Turning the adaptation into a glorious, multi-scene affair that alternates between lust and obsession, carnival joy and appealing romance, is in the inspired mind and hands of Synetic’s Founding Artistic Director Paata Tsikurishvili. He fashioned Hunchback into a production full of easily-understood impressionistic, solidly provocative symbolism in which a woman who is the center of male gazes comes to care for the only one who shows her decency rather than mere panting lust.

Along the way, Tsikurishvili has invented scenes with grotesque high-perching gargoyles who come alive; in one final scene, I found myself toggling my gaze and focus from the energy of well-done stage combat to a single figure slowly twisting in a frozen state for what seemed like 10 minutes. It produced a dropped-jaw state of admiration not just for the one actor, but for all the technical design folk who came up with what I saw and made it safe and, well, so very real.

Philip Fletcher as Frollo (center) with Gargoyle Ensemble. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

The production stars Vato Tsikurishvili as the pitiable, kindly Quasiomodo. He is usually obscured in a hoodie-like top, slouched-walking under a bulked-up, appropriately ragged costume. His face, too, is hidden under makeup, but Vato Tskikurishvili gives off plenty of personality and rage. (If ever I needed someone to call on to protect me from God knows what, it will be him).

Frollo is played by Phillip Fletcher (taking on different personalities; one carnal, the other more faithful to his priestly vows.) Esmeralda is well-portrayed by Irina Kavsadze as a young woman with a true heart, who is unsure how to survive in a world that values her only as a sexual object. Kavsadze’s Esmeralda lives in a world where innocence is far from a virtue.

The Hunchback cast includes Robert Smith as Gringoire, a musician and lover of Esmeralda, and Zana Gankhuyag as a dashing captain of the guard and lover of Esmeralda. As quite fearsome Gargoyles, Lee Liebeskin (head of the local beggars), Tori Bertocci, Shu-nan Chu, Anne Flowers, Raven Wilkes, and Augustin Beall complete the cast.

Anastasia Rurikova Simes’ grand, movable set is the physical center of the production. Let me describe it as a living, breathing alter-ego to the live actors. It is a brooding presence that is climbed over, through, and around. It is split in half, at times transformed into any number of permutations. It is a wonder of a set build.

Lighting Designer Brian Allard devises powerfully evocative points of light of many colors and wattages. It is a lighting design that casts the set into a rich theatrical spectacle. Costume Designer Erik Teague places all but Frollo in peasant-like outfits. In several dance sequences featuring Irinia Tsikurishvili’s energetic choreography, Esmeralda is dressed in a swirling, flowing skirt edged in bright white against everyone else’s blacks and browns.

Irina Kavsadze as Esmeralda. Photo by Johnny Shyrock.

The overall tensions of Synetic’s Hunchback, along with fights (Choreographer, Vato Tsikurishvili) and physical movement (Alex Mills, movement director), are grounded in charismatic original music. The veteran team of music composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze and Music Director Irakli Kavsadze continue their legendary work.

Synetic’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a bold tale of the fiery obsessions of men for one woman, balanced with the wonderfully wrought loyalty of an unexpected couple.

Without a single bit of dialogue, Hunchback captured me with a total package of artistic talent, actors and technical design. Synetic’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is exceptionally fresh and appealing. It held me in its taut grip then, in its concluding scene, ratcheted up visuals into one of the most provocative “still-life” moments I have seen on the DC-area stage in quite some time.

Synetic Theater’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame resonated within me for not hiding from presenting despicable behavior. It is a notable accomplishment that lingers with me still; it took guts to come away with a scene that the Flying Wallendas could admire.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame plays through June 11, 2017, at Synetic Theater – 1800 South Bell Street, in Crystal City, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

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