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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.