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If you read The Picture of Dorian Gray in a collegiate British literature class but forgot about the orgy in the opium den, don’t think you’re crazy when Synetic Theater gets to its vivid version of what happens in Chapter 16. Oscar Wilde’s novel is the latest literary work to be transformed by the Arlington-based physical theater troupe, and if the orgy scene in this sexed-up, creeped-out adaptation strikes you as new, that’s because it is.
What Wilde actually describes, in his tale of a hedonist cursed with eternal life, is an opium den in which all the patrons have passed out. That wouldn’t be nearly as much interesting to depict onstage, so at Synetic, a hookah with pipes extending like tentacles becomes the fulcrum of a rather explicit dance party that ends with a rape.
A parlor drama this Oscar Wilde play is not. Liberal adaptations are never grounds to skip a Synetic show—this is, after all, the company best known for its wordless productions of Shakespeare. But too many aesthetics compete for our attention in Artistic Director Paata Tsikurishvili’s vision of Dorian Gray, and consequently the show feels more like a workshop than one of the polished productions audiences should expect from Synetic.
Dallas Tolentino stars as Dorian, the vain Victorian dandy who ceases to age after an artist paints his portrait—which, in the play’s most compelling concept, is portrayed by a second actor. In the opening scenes, Philip Fletcher poses behind Plexiglass, holding a one-foot balance and freezing his arms midflourish. As the show progresses, he’ll shed his crisp poet’s blouse for increasingly shabby monochromatic clothing, and streak his face with white and black makeup. He’ll frequently step off his pedestal and duel with Tolentino. The pair of Dorians performs a series of pas de deux, sometimes mirroring each other, sometimes tussling.
The athletic, abstract interludes alternate with the dialogue-heavy sections. Most of Wilde’s witticisms are imparted by Joseph Carlson, who does a decent job depicting Dorian’s pleasure-seeking mentor. “I never know where my wife is, and my wife never knows what I am doing,” he quips, while lounging on a chair that’s one of few props in the show. There are no sets—only four screens that display a constant barrage of projections. Many are random scrolling patterns not unlike mid-1990s screen savers. These contrast sharply—and badly—with the grotesque images shown after Dorian commits a mortal sin: bleeding eyes, disembodied heads, and writhing hands.
During the second half of Act 1 and all of Act 2, the front of the stage is enclosed in a plastic cage. Initially, this is so actors can fling fluorescent paint around during the opium orgy. In the second act, the see-through screens make the dialogue difficult to hear, and the hinges obscure some patrons’ views. (Consensus in the ladies’ room after the show: Tsikurishvili should take them down.) The idea, I suspect, is to add a literal frame around this play that asks lots of questions about the nature of art. Like a decent literature professor, a solid stage adaptation should provide some answers, or at least some distinguished shading to illuminate the text. Instead, this Dorian Gray looks more like a freshmen aesthetics course, where students throw their artistic theories against a wall, and the audience gets to see what sticks.