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Synetic's Rock-Infused Take on 'Dorian Gray'

Joseph Carlson (Lord Henry), Dallas Tolentino (Dorian Gray), Robert Bowen Smith (Basil), and Ensemble
in The Picture of Dorian Gray, 2013 (photo by Koko Lanham, Synetic Theater)

It has been an Oscar Wilde kind of year, albeit in an unsatisfactory sense. After Theodore Morrison's disappointing new opera Oscar at Santa Fe Opera this summer, Synetic Theater has created a new stage adaptation of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which opened on Friday night. Wilde's strength, the one-line zinger, at which he remains almost unparalleled, is happily on display, with most of the book's best aphorisms placed in the dialogue, but this version, overburdened with orgiastic rock ballet sections, lost its luster and turned boring not long into the second half -- oddly, for a company that specializes in physical, fast-paced theater.

Wilde was constrained to soft-pedal the book's examination of homosexual attraction, something that artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili's adaptation may have over-corrected, an example of getting it wrong when trying to make it right. Dallas Tolentino had the right kind of beautiful emptiness as Dorian Gray, doubled by the silent living portrait of Philip Fletcher. Although the concept has interest, the lengthy fights between the two of them (choreographed by Ben Cunis) eventually made Wilde's subtle metaphor for the division of body and soul into something too literal and thus heavy-handed. Joseph Carlson was delightfully wicked as Lord Henry Wotton, with costume and hair designed to make him look exactly like Giovanni Boldini's portrait of Robert de Montesquiou. Lord Henry is a decadent aesthete who gives Dorian a book that teaches him every kind of debauchery, and the offensive book, unnamed, was apparently J.-K. Huysmans's À rebours, whose protagonist is likely based on the real-life Montesquiou.

Other Reviews:

Jennifer Perry, Synetic Brings Artistry to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray (Broadway World, September 28)

Yvonne French, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ at Synetic Theater by Yvonne French (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, September 27)
That a lot from the novel had to be omitted is hardly a surprise; it is the additions that one questions. Not least, perhaps looking for a way to include more of the physical action the company is known for, the show includes not one, but two orgy scenes. The latter is added into the events in the opium den and uses flung paint as a metaphor for -- well, let's leave it at that. Between the neon paint, the leather-fetish outfits, and the ear-blasting music, this was much more 90s rave or depraved dance club than the ostensibly still Victorian English setting. If this semi-updating succeeded in making Dorian Gray seem even more trivial and superficial, I am not sure it made him any more sympathetic. The performances are all generally good, with Robert Bowen Smith's Basil Hayward, the artist who paints the fatal portrait, himself a portrait of artistic narcissism. The theme of self-reflection is reinforced in the play's most charming scene, when the cast, watching Sybil Vane's performance, is seated across from the audience, as our reflection. Overall, though, the adaptation did not seem to work, in spite of some impressive staging (set design, heavy on the theme of frames for obvious reasons, by Daniel Pinha) and video effects (multimedia design by Riki K., lighting design by Colin K. Bills).

This production continues through November 3, at Synetic Theater in Crystal City.

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