One doesn’t need to have read H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, or even seen any of its half-dozen film translations—the most recent starring Marlon Brando in one of his last and strangest screen appearances—to know the broad strokes: Moreau is an isolated and possibly mad vivisectionist, exiled from the medical mainstream for his cruelty, who seeks to remake animals as men. His patients must maintain their excruciating surgical alterations through a lifetime course of outpatient care in which they’re made to chant the behavioral code that ennobles them above their beastly brethren: They must not walk on all fours, they must not give chase, they must not eat flesh (or even tree bark). “That is the law,” goes the refrain in house dramaturg Nathan Weinberger’s loose adaptation for Synetic Theater. In exchange for their unquestioning obedience, Moreau has endowed them with the dubious gifts of expanded mental function, and, particularly, speech—the very thing this 13-year-old company is famous for stripping out of Shakespeare.
This is a much better use of Synetic’s two great strengths: dance and design. We remember Shakespeare for the verse, not the plots, which often weren’t his anyway; premises, however, are what made Wells immortal. Dr. Moreau is a compelling but uncomplicated tale, one Weinberger approaches via the doctor’s own irreverent methods, taking substantial and interesting (and spoilable) liberties while preserving the spine. Which is: After a mishap at sea, Mr. Parker (Alex Mills), a naturalist, washes up on the shore of the island and is shocked by what he finds. A sci-fi tale about an island of tragic monsters is ripe vessel for the choreographers (Synetic co-founder Irina Tsikurishvili for dance, Ben Cunis for combat) and the design team to go nuts. They do.
Moreau’s pets are at first sight underwhelming. Dressed by Kendra Rai and made up by Caroline Lucas, they look like the cast of Cats in bondage gear and hockey equipment and Vibram toe shoes. But as always with this bunch, things get better as soon as the performers begin to leap and scurry. Phil Charlwood’s open set is dominated by a looping jungle gym–like structure that evokes a strand of DNA, one that the players clamber over and scramble through with feral speed and grace. A frightening tower of tubes and hoses and flashing lights rises from floor to ceiling. Thomas Sowers’ sonic palette feels like a rainforest sprouted up inside an abandoned cathedral, while multimedia and lighting designers Riki K. and Brittany Diliberto, respectively, use blue-green hues to give the house the feel of a planetarium, with a touch of the bioluminescent nocturnal world of Avatar.
Directing himself in the title role, Synetic co-founder Paata Tsikurishvili falls short only when he speaks, doubling and tripling down on exclamation points as though his lines were written by Stan Lee. (His Doc Ock haircut only reinforces this perception.) We’re deep into the 100-minute show before he reveals his own physical skills, enacting a pantomime wherein he pretends to raise each of his creatures from the ground via an invisible winch and pulley system. The discipline and precision of his command over his musculature—so much more refined than his command of English, no disrespect intended—is enough to silence any dissent about his casting of himself. As Parker, Synetic regular Alex Mills is believably terrified when Moreau straps him to a gurney for modification, but never quite believably bewildered. As the audience’s surrogate, he’s the one who must do the dull work of drawing explanations out of Moreau. Even so, he talks too much and moves too seldom—only when chased.
But again, the talk-acting is beside the point. This acrobatic Moreau is a diverting sensual experience, one that deflates at the end but not before it has vividly dramatized Wells’s big question: Is physical suffering at best irrelevant and at worst necessary? Can we evolve by teaching ourselves to ignore it? By way of demonstrating his answer, Moreau takes a glinting blade and slices a red trail through his own forearm, ignoring the pain like he’s Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. We always hurt the ones we’re forcibly trying to improve.
1800 S Bell St, Arlington. $15-$95. (703) 824-8061. synetictheater.org.