Theater Review: “The Picture of Dorian Gray” at Synetic Theater

The company delivers one of its most ambitious productions to date with Oscar Wilde’s classic.

By: Missy Frederick

“Your seats are in the front row, so there’s a slight chance of paint splatter,” warns an usher, offering a poncho. It’s hard to suppress a smile. Only at Synetic Theater.

The creative, movement-focused company has delivered one of its most ambitious productions to date with its season opener, a complex, multimedia take on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The performance group is trying out some new techniques with the show, and while not every experiment is successful, it’s clear the company from director Paata Tsikurishvili and choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili is still up for taking chances.

Consider that paint splatter. Dorian Gray is a tale of corruption: The title character (Dallas Tolentino) has been given an eerie sort of blessing—he remains unaged while a stunning, angelic portrait painted of him by his friend Basil (Robert Bowen Smith) takes on the signs not only of his years, but of the misdeeds he begins to perform more and more frequently. Gray is seized by callousness, lustfulness, and eventually murderous tendencies, under the guiding influence of a witty, charming hedonist mentor, Lord Henry (a deliciously knowing Joseph Carlson). The splatter scene finds Gray and Carlson in a den of iniquity, and leather, S&M-influenced dancers gyrate through a maze of tubes coming forth from a giant hookah, with the performers surrounded by a clear plastic screen. Neon paint is flung with abandon toward the screen (and to some degree, the audience) as the scene gets more and more frenetic and out of hand. It’s visually striking, though it’s hard to stay in the moment of the story while marveling and even chuckling at the gutsy staging.

Dance is an integral part of any Synetic production, and Irina Tsikurishvili’s movements have gotten even more intricate with this show, adding brave lifts and complicated partner exchanges. It’s all set on a backdrop of framed screens, which alternately can be used for shadowy effects, mirror tricks, or computer-generated images, mostly to add an extra layer of creepiness to a scene (showing clusters of grasping hands, for example). The decision to leave the surrounding outer screen in place for the play’s second act is a frustrating one, muffling the performers’ voices and creating a barrier between the audience and the proceedings. (It’s done for a reason, but the eventual payoff doesn’t seem worth the setbacks.) In-house composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze has created a crescendoing accompaniment to the show, and the music is even more present and noticeable than usual during some of the show’s climactic moments.

Paata Tsikurishvili has directed the performers to speak in a lofty, aristocratic style that heightens the mood and adds weight to Wilde’s clever language. This works well in the hands of performers like Carlson, who really sinks into the role of the pleasure-seeking, larger-than-life lord. In other scenes, though, particularly a brief exchange between Gray’s early love interest Sybil (Rachael Jacobs) and her concerned bother, James (Mitch Grant), the effect feels wooden. As Gray, Tolentino is perhaps more convincing as the picture of innocence than the incarnation of evil, but it’s exciting to see him spar with his portrait, brought to life by Philip Fletcher, costumed to appear as a living statue; the pair’s fight scenes are choreographed with flair by Ben Cunis. Any visual representation of the portrait itself in Dorian Gray is tricky to pull off—the imagination will always create a more grotesque image than anything that can be captured onstage. But instead of trying to make him terrifying, Fletcher’s costuming and apparent anguish show him gradually deteriorating, impressively, before the eyes of the audience. The choice is just as effective.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is at Synetic Theater through November 3. Running time is about two and a half hours, with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets ($35 to $50) are available via Synetic’s website.