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Theater Review: "Don Quixote" at Synetic

Demons and clowns make for an odd pairing in this over-the-top production

☆☆ stars out of four

In the second act of Synetic Theater’s Don Quixote, a woman plays a cruel trick on the eponymous hero, a self-ordained knight on a quest to restore chivalry to mankind. After professing to be in love with him, the woman, Altisidora, pretends to have died from her wounded heart, taking a vindictive pleasure in Don Quixote’s sorrowful reaction. As the other characters laugh themselves sick when the deception is discovered, a mournful Quixote seems to represent the audience, who for much of this production are similarly mistreated. After over two hours of this garish, acid trip of a fairy tale, it’s easier to slink away with shame than it is to figure out exactly what Synetic director and choreographer Paata and Irina Tsikurishvilli wanted us to take from it.Synetic excels at physical theater, winning bucketloads of awards for its trademark silent renditions of Shakespearean classics. This production incorporates language, which probably helps ease the burden of explaining a complicated and not necessarily familiar plot to an audience, but also takes the company into less confident territory. In the play, adapted from Miguel de Cervantes’s 1605 novel, a lover of chivalry novels named Alonso Quixano devotes himself to a life of good deeds, traveling around Spain in search of adventure. Quixote (Dan Istrate) persuades his gormless friend Sancho Panza (Ryan Sellers) to accompany him, promising Panza riches and glory. But of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the foolish pair tend to run into calamity every way they turn.

Quixote’s well-meaning (you might even say quixotic) foolishness and Panza’s bumbling good nature makes the play perfect for some clown sequences, and the first half maximizes this potential, resulting in an enjoyably light-hearted piece of (mostly) physical theater. Istrate’s rubber face and mournful eyes are charmingly communicative, and Sellers is so enjoyably clichéd as Panza that you almost wonder where the rest of the mariachi band went. So why Tsikurishvili decides to drop this schtick in favor of a nightmarish rave theme in the second act is impossible to fathom. Yes, the tone of the story gets darker, but that doesn’t explain the assault the audience is obliged to sit through as demon-like characters swarm the stage, shriek with laughter, and clamber all over a psychedelic, blacklit backdrop (whoever painted it was presumably inspired by a particularly gruesome episode of CSI).

The directors reportedly looked to surrealists Salvador Dalí and Hieronymus Bosch for inspiration, an interesting prism through which to view the hapless Don Quixote, but it just doesn’t gel well with the company’s natural affinity for graceful movement. A particularly curious scene where Panza appears to smoke a giant spliff to celebrate his inauguration as governor prompts a frenzied, drug-fuelled dance sequence that grates after the gentle comedy of the first act. Toward the end of the show, a wind machine blows dry ice directly into the faces of the audience, leaving most unable to see or breathe; a dubious technique for a company that boasts physicality as its main currency.

Set and costume designer Georgi Alexi-Meshkhisvili does a nice job with the minimal black set, using a single moving structure to represent a castle, a monster, and the windmill Quixote so famously attacks. The costumes are creative but mostly ugly to look at, in garish colors and tawdry fabrics. Overall, the performances drag—the show we saw ran almost 35 minutes over its allotted running time. It’s a shame, because the cast includes a number of gifted performers, who have an enviable ability with expression. One only wishes in this show that they weren’t the only ones having any fun.

“Don Quixote” is at Synetic Theater through July 3; tickets ($40 to $50) available at Synetic’s Web site.Subscribe to Washingtonian
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