The movement-driven magic that’s the specialty of the Synetic Theater troupe is very much on display in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which certainly isn’t concerned with its own excess. In addition to the aforementioned bishops and gluttons and spiders (oh my!), director Paata Tsikurishvili taunts his soul-sick Dante (tormented hero Ben Cunis) with a hellish assortment of mass murderers (slaughtering each other willy-nilly), sorceresses (with heads on backwards, which requires some gymnastics), and betrayers of all stripes—the last encased, as the Commedia prescribes, in ice.
Lots of rococo pictures to put onstage, in other words, and Synetic’s corps of visual-theater wizards (choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili, her director husband Paata Tsikurishvili, and their usual crew of wonder-workers) cherry-pick some of the most vivid from among the writhing denizens of Dante’s nine circles.
The lustful shimmy eternally, exhaustedly, in a kind of nightclub of the damned, led by a demoness (Salma Qarnain) wearing little more than a pair of horns and a
pair of tassels, while white-faced, black-furred demons patrol the perimeter; the gluttonous squelch along, sheathed in plastic tight as sausage casings, until their tormenters squeeze them through trap doors into Hell’s underbelly.
And while I’d deserve a torment or two for giving away the astonishing bit of athleticism required on the part of the two performers (Katie Maguire and Vato Tsikurishvili) who give life to the immense demon Minos—he’s something like the Sorting Hat in the poet’s vision of hell, assigning sinners their appointed places in Dante’s index—be assured that it’s both gob-smackingly unexpected and devilishly effective onstage.
What’s less effective, it must be said, is the arc of the evening itself. Synetic’s very best productions (that wordless, white-hot Macbeth, the scorchingly sensual Carmen) have always trafficked in crystal-clear storytelling that made words seem superfluous. Even when the stories are less than familiar, as with the Georgian tale behind the company’s wrenching Host and Guest, a clear dramatic thrust has always seemed essential to the gut-grabbing style that has addicted so many D.C. theatergoers.
There’s not much arc, of course, to Dante, based as it is on the Western world’s most enduring catalog of vices. A catalog, however deliciously depraved, is still a catalog. And while a young man’s heart (or something) might swell as he pages through the Victoria’s Secret circular, that expansive feeling will rarely last through to the final pages.
So, too, your appetite may flag, even as Cunis’ despondent Dante bores deeper and deeper into Synetic’s admittedly vivid Hell. Yes, he’s shepherded by a Virgil (Greg Marzullo) who appears, with his green eye shadow and strappy bondage-wear tunic, to have arrived in Hell not from Ancient Rome but by way of a Martian bordello, but a mad-scientist costume designer (Anastasia Riyurikov Simes, clearly demented in the very best way) and a wickedly inspired director-choreographer team can take a story only so far.
Which may mean that by the time that hypocritical bishop gets his distinctly uncomfortable-looking comeuppance—again, wouldn’t do to describe it, so think Edward II meets St. Peter, upstage center—you’ll begin to feel that there has been something vaguely purgatorial about the evening, though not quite the something Synetic presumably had in mind.