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

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The spectacle of movement has always been Synetic’s star attraction. When those primal, emotional moments fuse with a strong narrative throughline, Synetic’s brilliance shines brightest.

Irina Kavsadze as Esmeralda (top), Vato Tsikurishvili as Quasimodo (center) with Gargoyle Ensemble. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Their newest star, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which opened last night at the Crystal City Theater, is a supernova, for all the darkest reasons.

Combining a spectacle that entrances with some of the sharpest narrative constructions I’ve ever witnessed from Synetic, its The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a wordless opera that resounds across the boards and into the audience: a blockbuster of insight and feeling that will leave you stunned.

The creative team, led by Director Paata Tsikurishvili and Choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili, has worked with Adaptor/Dramaturg Nathan Weinberger to transform Victor Hugo’s famous novel of the same name into a succinct, tightly drawn story that focuses as much on the world of the play as it does the characters.

Scenic Designer Anastasia Rurikova Simes created the cathedral with its towering 20-foot cross and looming bell tower, but it is not like any cathedral you would ever want to visit for your spiritual health.

This cathedral is the play’s protagonist: a living breathing Ship of State with Gargoyles at the helm.

Lit viscerally by Brian Allard with costumes by Erik Teague, these Gargoyles (Tori Bertocci, Anne Flowers, Raven Wilkes, Augustin Beall, and Shu-nan Chu) appear at play’s alpha perched on the cathedral’s fortress walls. Undulating like vultures waiting for death, they look downstage where we discover the hunchback Quasimodo (Vato Tsikurishvili) crouched and hiding his face.

Irina Kavsadze as Esmeralda. Photo by Johnny Shyrock.

Then the cathedral’s deacon appears and salvation seems near at hand; tall and haunting, Frollo (Philip Fletcher) brings the abandoned Quasimodo into the church, where he immediately grabs the bell tower rope and begin to toll the bells.

From that moment forward, the cathedral with its Gargoyles and its gyrating structures disassemble, shift, and reconfigure themselves, even as characters move about within its crypt-like interior.

Despite the brilliance of the ensemble’s performances, we are never allowed to forget that this world’s prime mover is the church itself: when these characters move and dance, its the church driving the rhythm.

The characters exist within this dancing cathedral whose mechanistic movements leave one wondering when someone will be ground into its gears.

Particularly well done are those moments when external and internal conflict converge. Led by Movement Director Alex Mills and Fight Choreographer Vato Tsikurishvili, with music by Konstantine Lortkipanidze and directed by Irakli Kavsadze, those moments that might have been simply expressions of the plot become symbolic signifiers, revealing internal dramas that wordless worlds seldom clarify.

At the center of the drama is the gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Irina Kavsadze). Her free-wheeling dance style exists in stark contrast to the world’s otherwise mechanical scenography.

In this play, Esmeralda is literally every male’s object of desire. From the Deacon Frollo to Captain Phoebus (Zana Gankhuyag) to the Musician Gringoire (Robert Bowen Smith) to Quasimodo himself, each man falls under the spell of her liberation.

Even Clopin (Lee Liebeskind), leader of the beggars Guild, cannot resist her charm.

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

As the drama heats up and the spectacle intensifies, the medieval nature of the story becomes evident: hair shirts, dungeons, prisoners drawn and quartered, burnt at the stack, in the stocks, hung, whipped, stabbed.

A Disney animated movie this production is not, not by any stretch of anyone’s imagination.

And that too is a trademark of Synetic’s ever-more evolving vision of theater. It has never been afraid of the darkness that its vision explores: perhaps that’s because the beauty of its aesthetics is so equally on display.

If I had my druthers, this The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with its brilliant fusion of emotion and narrative, would be nominated for Outstanding Production and Outstanding Adaptation.

Either way, it will go down as one of Synetic’s most powerful shows.

Running Time: 95 minutes without an intermission

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

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