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Theater Review: “Jekyll and Hyde” at Synetic Theater

Just in time for the haunting season, the physical theater company tackles the classic tale of good versus evil in an eerie and powerful interpretation.

Alex Mills as Jekyll and Hyde. Photograph by Johnny Shryock.

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.