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Theater Review: “A Trip to the Moon” at Synetic Theater

This whimsical collaboration between director Natsu Onoda Power and Synetic Theater is one small step for drama, one giant leap for imagination.

Karen O’Connell as Laika in “Laika the Space Dog.” Photograph by Johnny Shryock.

For thousands of years, the moon has inspired folk tales and scientific theories, Sinatra songs, box office blockbusters, and Newt Gingrich’s megalomania. This month, it’s also sparked the creativity of director, writer, and illustrator Natsu Onoda Power’s imagination in her latest world-premiere production, A Trip to the Moon at Synetic Theater. Invited to collaborate with Synetic’s tight-knit team after the success of last spring’s Astro Boy and the God of Comics at Studio Theatre, Onoda Power, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, has created an original collection of lunar adventures incorporating Synetic’s signature brand of movement-based storytelling and her own whimsical, out-of-this-world style. The result is thought-provoking and entertaining, but the intended overall impact is occasionally outstripped by its own highly inventive concept and staging.

Power has interpreted Le Voyage dans la lune [A Trip to the Moon], Georges Méliès’s 1902 silent film, as the thread tying together two additional moon-centric narratives: The Legendary 10th-Century Tale of a Bamboo Cutter from Power’s native Japan, and Laika the Space Dog, a story of a Soviet stray who became the first animal to orbit the earth. Capturing humanity’s longstanding fascination with our glowing cosmic neighbor and the scope of its possibilities through three seemingly divergent plotlines is what this production does best, creating a unique theatrical experience that uses mood-setting lighting, live animation, and designer Jared Mezzochi’s unexpected projections. (Power worked with Mezzochi on God of Comics as well.)

It’s a departure from Synetic’s standard wordless format. Here, voiceovers accompany the playful choreography (designed by Synetic founder and resident choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili), making the eclectic action easier to follow but diluting the company’s usual punch. The movement itself largely slants toward slapstick and vaudeville (tinny piano player and all), without the sharp synchronization those familiar with Synetic’s style have come to expect, but it fits the fanciful tone of the production nonetheless.

Tapping the unpredictable spirit of the celestial unknown, Mezzochi and Power deliver an exciting mix of interactive set pieces, video elements, backdrops painted in the midst of scenes, and other charming atmospheric choices. Andrew F. Griffin’s spacey lighting and Kendra Rai’s eclectic but complementary costumes reinforce the fresh overall feel.

The performers are a talented group, clearly having fun with the fantastical world they’ve been given, but we’re still left wanting more. With the exception of a surprisingly tender dog ballet (yes, you read that right) and a handful of other scenes, characters and storylines are too fleeting in the production’s 90-minute run to feel especially connected to or invested in. The focus is on the overall collaborative effect instead of individual performances, so while no one stands out in a bad way, no one really stands out at all.

Moon is worth checking out, if only because the notions behind it are so damn interesting. The fact that it’s bold, original, and fun—it’s not every day you see a dog being sent into orbit or a princess uncovered in a bamboo stalk on stage—makes it all the more noteworthy. NASA may have abandoned its manned lunar mission and our wide-eyed Space Age optimism may have dimmed, but it’s nice to know artists like Power and Synetic’s team are still aiming for the stars.

A Trip to the Moon is playing at Synetic Theater through January 6. Running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($35 to $55) are available at Synetic Theater’s website.

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