Tuesday, October 2, 2012

REVIEW: Synetic Theater's Jekyll & Hyde

REVIEW: Synetic Theater's Jekyll & Hyde

Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili
Choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili
Set Design by Daniel Pinha
Original Music by Konstantine Lortkipanidze
Starring Alex Mills
Running September 20 — October 21, 2012 at Synetic Theater in Crystal City

So I don't think I've reviewed stage plays here yet, but I've been trying to articulate my conflicted feelings over Synetic's Jekyll & Hyde since I saw it this past Friday and I thought this would be a good forum to do so.

First of all, let me just say that Mr. Bay and I have loved and raved about the awesomeness of every Synetic play we've been to so far, except this one. He's deaf in one ear and having to triangulate sounds or hear softly spoken actors left him with a general dislike of going to the theater, so Synetic's combination of story and dance with no spoken words and only music managed to rekindle his enjoyment and is the perfect solution for us both. Full disclosure: We're subscription ticket holders.

Given that, I have to say that I was disappointed with this latest performance. It wasn't anything technical with the choreography or set design -- that was superb as always -- but rather the interpretation of the source material, Robert Louis Stevenson's novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

I could say that I disliked this interpretation because it's darker than previous Synetic plays we've seen and has sexualized violence -- but it's not that simple. I like dark plays and will tolerate sexualized violence if I feel like it has a purpose. But in this case, I feel like it didn't. Perhaps I was spoiled by Synetic's modernization of plays like King Lear (Cordelia as the gay son) and Taming of the Shrew (celebutantes in love), where they took Shakespeare's themes and reinterpreted them in such a way that the story content felt modern/timeless and relevant while staying true to the original story lines. They actually made me like Taming of the Shrew and I have very heartfelt feelings of dislike about that play.

So Jekyll & Hyde... Each Synetic performance pamphlet has a director's note explaining the artistic interpretation, usually with commentary on the themes they're exploring and then a one to two page summary of the story line and major plot points. The director's note for Jekyll & Hyde focused on technology, how we are the technology generation and not a product of it, how we lose ourselves in it and how we're defined by it. That was all well and good, I could see that theme in the original novella and imagined Jekyll to look much like the doctor in Young Frankenstein while shouting "For Science!"

What I feel like this interpretation lacked greatly was acknowledgement of the humanity of the novella, the heart of what makes us human amidst all the technology. But wait, you say, that's been done to death and this is revitalizing a tired script. I'll give you that. Pretty much all Jekyll & Hyde performances focus on the humanity of the characters -- because that's what the novella is about. Jekyll loses himself in the cold heart of science and technology, but in the end, realizes that in trying to perfect humanity, he has lost all of his.

So when I read the one page summary after the director's note, I was a little puzzled because I've come to expect great things from Synetic when it comes to gender and sexuality, and what I read was a very flat, one note description. The two lead female characters didn't even have names, while the male ones did, and were merely labelled as their archetypes -- The Fiancee and The Stripper. Mentally, I had already re-tagged them as The Madonna and The Whore. I thought it was a purposeful oversight meant to draw our attention to the role of women in Stevenson's original work, but there was no explanation provided for it. It seemed odd.

Then the play commenced and we see Jekyll's descent from a science-focused, naive young man into a Black Swan-reminiscent psychopath. Jekyll's best friend takes him to the redlight district to celebrate Jekyll's engagement to the nameless Fiancee. There, Jekyll's uncomfortable, he shakes off the advances of a male stripper, he hides his face from the women but peeks, then enjoys their attention. He's the epitome of repressed innocence. Then he and his friend save the Stripper from a mugger and he makes out with her at her prompting and has Impure Thoughts, capitalized because he can't deal. With any of it. He takes the Hyde serum he's been working on with his animatronics (an ensemble cast in leotards and gas masks that were like a physical representation of the Id more than a physical representation of technology), trying to rid himself of his Impure Thoughts that the Stripper evoked and it goes down hill from there.

Partying and sexual sadism (RAPE) ensue, until Jekyll can't control Hyde and murders a random male stripper, then hauls the Stripper off for a somewhat graphic rape scene behind a tinted glass door. Hyde isn't Jekyll, blaming other people for his problems -- he's Jekyll with no filters for his morals, even as he works within the boundaries of that morality. The Stripper is the second murder victim, with a second graphic rape/murder scene that reminded me quite a bit of The Royal Shakespeare Company's recent performance of Frankenstein (with Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch). I'm assuming we were meant to interpret the Stripper turning to Jekyll and his friend for protection again to mean that she didn't recognize Jekyll as Hyde from her first attack. Because really, he gives her guilt money in the mail and she seeks him out? Predictably, he's left alone with her and Hyde breaks free to give her a gruesome, graphic end.

At that point, I was feeling very discontent, because this interpretation was supposed to be all about our relationship with technology and the only moral I could pull from it was that we become callous, murderous, homophobic jackasses the deeper we go -- Anyone who's read the anonymous comments of an online news article could have told me that -- and also that women who are assaulted by a guy they've only encountered twice apparently imprint on them and go back for more. (Systemic abuse victims, maybe I could see it. Violent, sudden, stranger-based sexual assault victims? Not seeing it.)

There's a juxtaposition in my comment above that bothers me, too -- If there was anything I gathered from the fact that this play is all about the use of technology here, then it's that science and technology are inherently male, and that women have no place in it except as passive victims of its male producers.

See, Jekyll tries to pretend everything's normal after he hides the body of the Stripper, but Hyde takes over and tries to kill the Fiancee in her sleep (that's when it goes Black Swan with ballerina shoes and streaky black face paint) but Jekyll prevails. Then Hyde breaks free at their wedding, murdering everyone except the best friend and the Fiancee, then kills the best friend after a kiss (repressed homosexual desires? which, apparently, he'd rather murder people than face)

But! Jekyll kills himself before Hyde can use the serum on the Fiancee, and then she, after watching him go on a murder spree which included her father and all her friends, comes down to cradle him in her arms and the play ends. Because he can kill all those other people, but he can't stand to bring her, the epitome of purity, down to his depraved level. She remains The Madonna to the end, complete with spotlight as her love attempts to redeem him. She doesn't really fight back. She doesn't take her chance to run out the door and flee. She has no personality and is there as a witness, a foil to illustrate his downfall.

I think my disappointment boils down to this: After Taming of the Shrew, with its strong male and female leads who turn societal expectation on its head, I was constantly waiting for Jekyll & Hyde to give me something new, something innovative in its story line, and it never delivered. The story was one that I've seen done a hundred times and this interpretation brought nothing new to the table.

From a technical standpoint, the production was mindblowing -- hence my conflicted state. A bank of television screens of various sizes was incoporated in the production in an innovative manner, to give us a glimpse into Jekyll's mind, though at first it just seems to be a microscope until you realize it's representing his thoughts on what he's doing. Later, Jekyll or Hyde will go behind the bank of screens, only to appear on it (in a recording) and emerge from behind minutes later as the other. It was a very clever way to effect an on-stage transition without breaking the pace of the story or leaving bits of wardrobe lying about the stage. The ensemble dancers interacted with it, Alex Mills interacted with the recording of himself, and it was a way to show Jekyll having flashbacks of Hyde's actions without acting everything out (a reprieve when it came to the first rape).

Mr. Mills was really the shining piece of the whole production. He was able to switch characters in a split second, fighting himself physically on stage amid contortions that had us questioning whether he really had vertebrae or a Slinky in his back. He brought a physicality to Hyde that made him seem wanton but on the verge of great destruction at all times. His frenetic energy made the rest of the cast seem slow in comparison.

So there you have my feelings. They may seem overly negative, but perhaps I was more sensitive to the content than I realized going in and had different expectations.

We're definitely looking forward to Synetic's next play, A Trip To The Moon, by Natsu Onoda Power. A friend caught Ms. Power's interpretation of Astro Boy and thought it was amazing, so I have high hopes on this one.

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