A person’s moral compass, popular culture tells us, is forever in the dueling grip of that sinister devil perched on one shoulder and the virtuous angel on the other—and in the dark and twisty channels of our consciousness, evil often gets the upper hand. That’s certainly the case in Jekyll and Hyde, Synetic Theater’s provocative new take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of human duality. But here the clichéd angels and devils have been replaced with proper Victorian ingénues and chivalrous gentlemen pitted against grotesque human science experiments and hypersexed streetwalkers, and the effect—when combined with Synetic’s signature seamlessly choreographed, word-free style—is electric.
Before husband-and-wife director/choreographer team Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili’s latest production even gets underway, a menacing masked figure on a short-circuiting wall of video screens warns of the show’s disturbing nature. And he’s not kidding. The action explores some of the vilest corners of humanity, from rape to mass murder, but because those horrors are presented through a powerful combination of physicality and atmosphere, the performance moves rather than revolts.
In fact, the pre-show decree sets a fitting tone in more ways than one. The Tsikurishvilis play with the idea of technology and science wielding a sometimes dangerously powerful hold over mankind throughout the show, and the eerie images that kick everything off are the first of many. Fixated on honing that power at the center of the show is Dr. Jekyll (a nimble and compelling Alex Mills, a Synetic regular), an upstanding scientist looking to separate the human impulse for good from that which drives evil. When Jekyll tests his experiment on himself, things go awry. Seriously awry. Alter-ego Mr. Hyde is Jekyll’s shoulder-perching devil on a bad acid trip and Mills builds the character with fiery and tortured precision (not to mention eye-popping double-jointedness in transformation scenes). The show rests largely on Mills’s flexible shoulders and he carries that weight with ease.
Though Mills’s title characters are by far the most dramatically developed, what makes Jekyll and Hyde work so well is the way the flawless supporting ensemble and the show’s stylistic elements fit together as a whole. Even without words, Synetic’s actors have a riveting talent for speaking volumes through jarringly synchronized movement and expression. Designers have infused the ominous industrial set, bold lighting, and startling sound choices with the same overarching theme of opposing forces: a buttoned-up Victorian ball against the boiling beakers, blinking screens, and scantily clad test subjects of Jekyll’s laboratory; stark lights illuminating the differences between Jekyll’s innocent fiancée (Brittany O’Grady) and a stripping temptress (Rebecca Hausman); scenes that depend just as heavily on silence as others do on a foreboding soundtrack. Occasionally, it can be too much. The evolving mix of contemporary and historic time periods and aesthetics gets a bit busy and jumbled later in the production’s intermission-free run, and Hyde’s progressive madness dances (literally) on the line between frightening and goofy from time to time. Still, the show evokes a fascinating texture that’s part Tim Burton, part Black Swan, part Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.
Choosing to tell this particular story without dialogue gives the audience a unique opportunity to interpret the production’s larger messages of good, evil, self-control, and raw, primal human instinct for themselves. In today’s culture, where grisly headlines lead the news and mass shootings are growing commonplace, Synetic’s well-crafted work addresses timely questions of what can really be lurking within people and the moral repercussions of playing God with creativity and grace.
Jekyll and Hyde is playing at Synetic Theater through October 21. Running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($35 to $55) are available at Synetic’s website.