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Theater Review: “The Picture of Dorian Gray” at Synetic Theater

The company delivers one of its most ambitious productions to date with Oscar Wilde’s classic.

Randy Snight as Portrait and Dallas Tolentino as Dorian Gray in Synetic’s production of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Photograph by Koko Lanham.

“Your seats are in the front row, so there’s a slight chance of paint splatter,” warns
an usher, offering a poncho. It’s hard to suppress a smile. Only at Synetic Theater.

The creative, movement-focused company has delivered one of its most ambitious productions
to date with its season opener, a complex, multimedia take on Oscar Wilde’s
The Picture of Dorian Gray. The performance group is trying out some new techniques with the show, and while
not every experiment is successful, it’s clear the company from director
Paata Tsikurishvili and choreographer
Irina Tsikurishvili is still up for taking chances.

Consider that paint splatter.
Dorian Gray is a tale of corruption: The title character (Dallas Tolentino) has been given an eerie sort of blessing—he remains unaged while a stunning, angelic
portrait painted of him by his friend Basil (Robert Bowen Smith) takes on the signs not only of his years, but of the misdeeds he begins to perform
more and more frequently. Gray is seized by callousness, lustfulness, and eventually
murderous tendencies, under the guiding influence of a witty, charming hedonist mentor,
Lord Henry (a deliciously knowing
Joseph Carlson). The splatter scene finds Gray and Carlson in a den of iniquity, and leather, S&M-influenced
dancers gyrate through a maze of tubes coming forth from a giant hookah, with the
performers surrounded by a clear plastic screen. Neon paint is flung with abandon
toward the screen (and to some degree, the audience) as the scene gets more and more
frenetic and out of hand. It’s visually striking, though it’s hard to stay in the
moment of the story while marveling and even chuckling at the gutsy staging.

Dance is an integral part of any Synetic production, and Irina Tsikurishvili’s movements
have gotten even more intricate with this show, adding brave lifts and complicated
partner exchanges. It’s all set on a backdrop of framed screens, which alternately
can be used for shadowy effects, mirror tricks, or computer-generated images, mostly
to add an extra layer of creepiness to a scene (showing clusters of grasping hands,
for example). The decision to leave the surrounding outer screen in place for the
play’s second act is a frustrating one, muffling the performers’ voices and creating
a barrier between the audience and the proceedings. (It’s done for a reason, but the
eventual payoff doesn’t seem worth the setbacks.) In-house composer
Konstantine Lortkipanidze has created a crescendoing accompaniment to the show, and the music is even more
present and noticeable than usual during some of the show’s climactic moments.

Paata Tsikurishvili has directed the performers to speak in a lofty, aristocratic
style that heightens the mood and adds weight to Wilde’s clever language. This works
well in the hands of performers like Carlson, who really sinks into the role of the
pleasure-seeking, larger-than-life lord. In other scenes, though, particularly a brief
exchange between Gray’s early love interest Sybil (Rachael Jacobs) and her concerned bother, James (Mitch Grant), the effect feels wooden. As Gray, Tolentino is perhaps more convincing as the picture
of innocence than the incarnation of evil, but it’s exciting to see him spar with
his portrait, brought to life by
Philip Fletcher, costumed to appear as a living statue; the pair’s fight scenes are choreographed
with flair by
Ben Cunis. Any visual representation of the portrait itself in Dorian Gray is tricky to pull off—the imagination will always create a more grotesque image than
anything that can be captured onstage. But instead of trying to make him terrifying,
Fletcher’s costuming and apparent anguish show him gradually deteriorating, impressively,
before the eyes of the audience. The choice is just as effective.

The Picture of Dorian Gray
is at Synetic Theater through November 3. Running time is
about two and a half hours,
with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets ($35 to $50) are
available via Synetic’s website.