‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ at Synetic Theater

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Synetic continues to plumb classic literature to find new sources of inspiration for its physical theater productions. Opening its new season, Paata Tsikurishvili and his team of artistic and technical wizards have found another deeply  flawed characters to bring to life. This time Synetic’s creative juices have a production based upon H.G. Wells’late 19th century science fiction eye-opener, The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Alex Mills (Parker) and Paata Tsikurishvili (Dr. Moreau). Photo by Johnny Shryock.
Alex Mills (Parker) and Paata Tsikurishvili (Dr. Moreau). Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Dr. Moreau is Wells’ take on morality, religion, the effects of rapid Industrialization [the Luddites had lost]  with a focused swerve into medical practices [think the television show The Knick]. Wells wrote in a popular manner, giving traction to forces growing  against vivisection and animal cruelty.

Tskikurishvili wrote in his program notes, “The tragedy of Wells’ tale, Dr Moreau himself is a visionary, a true genius, heroic in his sear for truth, wherever it may lead, and always completely honest about his intentions.  But, at the same time, the great intellect is horribly warped by a complete loss of feeling and empathy by an unbending adherence to logic [think Big Data]  – ultimately ‘driven by nothing more than cold curiosity’. ”

Synetic is clearly a theater troupe willing to take artistic and business risks by breaking away from its decade plus “silent Shakespeare” beginnings. This production is another in which dialogue is more central, sensual and emotional choreography is less at the forefront and the subject matter one with a less well-known work adapted.  Wells’ book was adapted by Synetic veteran Nathan Weinberger with Lloyd Rose listed as script consultant.

Alas, The Island of Dr. Moreau is not yet an altogether satisfactory theatrical production. There is something missing; a deep emotional resonance to go along with the showmanship, the fine physical and dance movements, the dark moody music and the important, to this very day, issues raised.

Forbidding science fiction about medical experimentation  left your reviewer with  a “meh” rather than a long resounding visceral “wow!” The production was certainly visually a visual eyeful. The usual Synetic movement theater is there. Just that it comes off as a light slap rather than something leaving a lasting impression.

The story line of The Island of Dr. Moreau is this: sometime in the future or perhaps the past, a shipwrecked survivor (Alex Mills as Parker, in a key very verbal communication role) is rescued, finding himself on a remote island. Soon enough he meets the island’s inhabitants including an increasingly unhinged Dr. Moreau (Paata Tsikurishvili) clearly enjoying himself in a speaking role and looking like one of those scientists from a 1930’s Universal Pictures monster movie). There are also Dr. Moreau’s second-in-command Montgomery (the nuanced tongue and acting skills of Dallas Tolentino), his mysterious, at first shy, daughter (a wide-eyed Eliza Smith) and a servant (Pasquale Guiducci).

There is also a gaggle of Dr. Moreau’s part animal/part human creations.  These are creatures such as a “Feline” woman with a family secret (Tori Bertocci making the most of emotional grunts and shrill utterances to go with her fluid movements) and a “Creature” (the always in-the-moment Philip Fletcher) along with a number highly physical ensemble of active”Beasts.”

The original music by Irakli Kavsadze, director of music and Konstantine Lortikipanidze, resident composer, includes warm, soft evocative piano-centered sonatas that bring out Dr. Moreau’s fleeting humanity along with recurring, grand, strident, percussive-centered works that give fuel to the jumpy, angular stylized choreographed from Irinia Tsikurishvili. Fights and acrobatics are by way of veteran Ben Cunis.

The scenic design by Phil Charlwood with lighting design by Brittany Diliberto is chilly. There is an open metal jungle-gym at audience left;  it is a half dome of pipes on which the “Beasts” cavort.

Kendra Rai has the difficult task of rendering beasts and creatures while allowing physical freedom to move. Rai performs her task by developing headdresses in an attempt to differentiate each creature from another.  After a while there is a single blur of “beast” visuals. Mills at first looks a bit like Indiana Jones in attire. His dishevelment comes soon enough. Tsikuishvili is in either bloody medical scrubs or in a delightful long leather Jefferson coat. He looks as a diabolically tall biker from “Breaking Bad” but one with an infectious smile.

The Island of Dr. Moreau is another in the Synetic folks reach beyond their tried and true. The disquieting darkness  of the themes raised can be felt at times starting with the opening dialogue inviting the audience to partake of a “Brave, New World” or when Dr. Moreau commands his beasts, as if an evil bearer of a newly revised Ten Commandments that includes, “Not to chase other Men” and “Not to eat Flesh or Fish”.

Paata Tsikurishvili (Dr. Moreau) and Victoria Bertocci (Feline Woman). Photo by Johnny Shryock.
Paata Tsikurishvili (Dr. Moreau) and Victoria Bertocci (Feline Woman). Photo by Johnny Shryock.

The production of The Island of Dr. Moreau has its moments of squirm. But the final blackout is more a fade into darkness.  There is something missing even though puppet-master Tsikuishvili as Dr.Moreau meets his ordained fate. Perhaps a few more humorous lines beyond one or two to take away from the unremitting dark taste. Perhaps more emotional connections between the evil Dr. Moreau and his very, very special Feline creation. Perhaps an “almost” epilogue; not just a fade into oblivion.

With that said, long applause to Synetic for what it continues to do;  at times reaching beyond its past to find new sources of inspiration with words to digest.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Island of Dr.Moreau plays through November 2, 2014 at Synetic Theater-1800 South Bell Street in Arlington, VA (At the Crystal City Metro). For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.