The main character of Synetic Theater’s new adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, based on Oscar Wilde’s only novel, is a handsome young man who sits for a portrait by a painter named Basil. Basil’s friend Lord Henry corrupts the malleable Dorian by pouring siren songs of a sybaritic lifestyle into his ear and absinthe down his throat.
By the end of the first act, Dorian (Dallas Tolentino) and Lord Henry (Joseph Carlson) have left the painter’s studio and are in an opium den that features dancers from the company’s award-winning ensemble who are writhing with the hoses of a large hookah, while wearing dominatrix costumes and headdresses by Kendra Rai, and then writhing with Dorian, and then . . . well, you’ll have to see for yourself!
For those familiar with the company’s usual theatrical method–all movement, no or very few words–the dance is classic Synetic Theater fare. But this production is a departure for the company because it uses a lot of dialog. For a Synetic first-timer, the dialog illuminated plot points such as, importantly, Dorian wishing that the Portrait would age instead of him.
As the Portrait, award-winning Synetic veteran Philip Fletcher is practically liquid, moving in and out of his picture frame and all around the stage, silently commenting on the action with every muscle as if compelled by the current emotion. At one point I started feeling the play viscerally instead of thinking it through it in a linear fashion, which was a fantastic experience.
Carlson superbly played Lord Henry as a distinguished-looking aesthete with a compelling theory: “the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.” As Dorian, the high energy and flexible Tolentino used movement, including some break dancing moves to shift seamlessly between pleasure seeking and cruelty.
A unifying element between dialog and dance was the lighting by designer Colin K. Bills, who demarked with perfect timing the many hanging scrims in shades of white, black and gray, drawing the audience’s attention to the central action within the depths of a multi-layered set where shadows and dancers mingled.
Another unifying element was the haunting original score by Konstantine Lortkipanidze. Along with sound design and effects by Thomas Sowers, it provided a sonorous sounds cape with hints of sitar and harpsichord and a brassy metallic clanging that clashed when the characters did, particularly in fight scenes choreographed by Ben Cunis.
My favorite fight scene was in the second act, between Dorian and the Portrait. There is also a beautiful romantic dance in the first act choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili featuring Dorian and his love interest, Sybil, played by Rachael Jacobs.
The creative set design by Daniel Pinha features at least 10 hanging scrims, with one being the portrait frame for the picture of Dorian. This is covered in translucent plastic that reflects the actors to the audience, adding yet another layer to the set. Most noticeably, the sad face of the painter, Basil, passionately played by Robert Bowen Smith, is sometimes reflected in the plastic over the portrait of Dorian.
Phantasmagoric multimedia design by Riki K. is projected on four or more screens simultaneously and it is totally surreal, especially a video of an eye weeping copiously from the bottom lid as lashes grow out of the top lid and furl around like tentacles.
Unexpectedly for me, while in his ‘picture frame’ it appeared to me that the Portrait did not age and wither in Dorian’s stead. He stays the same, only his shirt is tattered in the second act. The character who ages most noticeably is Lord Henry, who is a shell of his former self at the end. Is this a message that art is timeless and depravity is ruinous? Both of these subjects are discussed in the dialog, as well as the idea that art should be open-ended so people can bring their own experiences to it in order to complete it.
Director Paata Tsikurishvili called the play a “visual and verbal melting pot” in which Dorian represents “a modern Narcissus, his charm and lethal vanity luring in and ultimately destroying both himself and all those around him.”
Tsikurishvili has personally won 9 Helen Hayes Awards and Synetic has won 24 since he and his wife, choreographer Irini Tsikurishvili, founded the company in 2001. Watching The Picture of Dorian Gray – I can see why.
Dallas Tolentino on Playing Dorian Gray at Synetic Theater by Joel Markowitz.