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The trickle of red seeps down Lucy’s impossibly pale throat from her pierced jugular into the shallow hollow between her clavicles, where windpipe slips behind bone, and pools there for an instant before running down her chest. Thick and glistening on her skin, the wine-dark rivulet brightens and spreads on, reaching her silky white nightgown—a scarlet wave consuming her breast as it heaves one last time. And then she’s spent. Motionless. Gone.
Except, of course, that stillness is a sometime thing in the world of the undead, just as it is in the whirling, flickering, seemingly infinitely mutable universe inhabited by the Synetic Theater. That this literarily inclined, movement-oriented troupe is tackling Dracula, a story set just across the Black Sea from the Georgian Republic its founders left a decade ago, is surely apt—overdue, even—the material being ripe for the sort of melodramatic imagery in which Synetic traffics. But who’d have guessed they could manage the stage equivalent of a close-up in the decidedly un-intimate Spectrum Theater? I was sitting about halfway back and well off to one side, yet that trickle of blood might as well have been filling the movie screen that fronted the auditorium back when it was a cinema. Focus is everything in Synetic’s work, and when the focus narrows, this Dracula has—you should pardon the expression—quite a pulse.
Characteristically, the troupe approaches the literary with an eye to history. The evening begins with company founder Paata Tsikurishvili bashing heads as Vlad Tepes, the 15th-century warrior who earned the nickname Vlad the Impaler for his charming habit of leaving bodies suspended on pikes. While impaling a few opponents in a creepily realized opening tableau that leaves them twisting gently in half-light, he is mortally wounded. He’s then rescued from mortality by a Gollum-like devil, ravished by a trio of scarlet-gowned harpies, and left most decidedly undead—and seemingly not at all unhappy about that fact.
Flash-forward to Translyvania a few centuries later, as Brit lawyer Jonathan Harker (Greg Marzullo) arrives to help Vlad (now ensconced in a castle as Count Dracula and considerably less sanguine about having all the time in the world on his hands) purchase some real estate in London. This is not a great career move, as Harker eventually realizes, but not before he’s being buffeted by forces that hurl him into stagewide scarlet spiderwebs, where he’s held helpless as those harpies in red toy with him. Marzullo is one of the company’s more accomplished performers, and it’s in his suffering that the story’s melodramatic tug starts to assert itself. Harker’s no match for Dracula, of course, and is soon watching coffins being disinterred and loaded onto a boat—the black cloth that represents the earth into which the gravediggers plunge pushes forward to become the prow of the ship—and then things go seriously awry for the good guys.
These include the vampire-hunting Dr. Van Helsing, Harker’s plucky fiancée, and her doomed girlfriend Lucy, as well as Lucy’s suitors, one of whom runs an asylum where Dracula’s former lackey Renfield is busily eating flies and spiders, and—well, you know the drill. Choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili has been as resourceful as she always is about finding ways for finger-flames to flicker, for a woman’s torso to become a balancing scale for blood and rats, and for characters to seem to float rather than walk. And her husband—who not only plays the title character but also directs—has conjured some exquisite stage effects, including a few in which Colin K. Bills’ eerie lighting helps the shimmering red and black silks and velvets selected by designer Anastasia Ryurikov Simes do things you probably haven’t imagined fabrics doing.
Although Tsikurishvili and frequent co-star Marzullo are still the cream of an increasingly accomplished crop of performers, this production shows off much of the ensemble to advantage. Jodi Niehoff’s long neck and delicate figure are matched by a sweet affect that makes that trickle of blood on Lucy’s throat especially harrowing. Nicholas Allen creates Renfield’s perfectly reasonable insanity with darting eyes and tricky footwork in the cage he carries with him. Nathan Weinberger gives the doctor who runs the asylum a matter-of-factness that’s refreshing in a company where much is, of necessity, airy and gestural.
A few of the performers are less authoritative when speaking than when moving, but Jonathan Leveck’s adaptation is as light on words as Dracula is on his feet, so that’s less a problem than it might be. The Synetic method has always veered toward dance anyway, and with a rich classical score backing up nearly every moment of this evening, the troupe’s Dracula lacks only lyrics to be a piece of musical theater. If you’ve not discovered Synetic yet, now would be a fine time.
Some people never learn. It was only a season ago that Carlos Castillo’s clueless chauvinism led Ana Veronica Muñoz to slaughter him in Gala Hispanic Theatre’s Yerma. Now, in the troupe’s season opener, Te Quiero, Muñeca (“I Love You, Doll”), he spends an entire evening tormenting her again. The guy must have a death wish.
If he escapes with his skin this time, it’s only through authorial intervention. Ernesto Caballero’s comedy about a man—André—and his made-to-order bionic wife—Nora, of course—would feel a lot smarter if it let its android heroine wreak some Blade Runner– style havoc on her oppressors, but the playwright is interested only in taking the story into sitcom territory. And not even sophisticated-sitcom territory, despite a reference to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and an android creator (Eva Salvetti in a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo) who mouths a few cracks about men who “fear female desire.” Imagine that actors equipped to perform Medea are assaying an episode of I Dream of Jeannie and you’ll have the general idea.
The performances might best be said to suit the material. Muñoz is decently resourceful about making the leading lady’s approach to life mechanical without making the character actively robotic. Castillo has trouble finding a human side to a husband who can’t seem to relate to anyone at all (the character’s a critic—which may explain it), but then, how much warmth would really be appropriate in a man who announces that “a good woman is like a business card”? Lucrecia Basualdo and Luis Simon stumble gamely through thankless roles as next-door neighbors who pop by to behave boorishly.
Gala’s mostly female design team has outfitted the evening with more cleverness and class than it entirely warrants. Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s setting is surrounded by lucite art panels that look like enormous printed electronic circuits. (Director Harold Ruiz inexplicably has performers play parts of scenes behind them, but that’s not the designer’s fault.) Ayun Fedorcha’s lighting turns a stationary platform into a decidedly low-tech but visually effective lazy Susan. And costumer Alessandra D’Ovidio has had the amusing notion that Nora’s learning curve might find expression in the same fashion choices that a generation of feminists adopted in their more measured trek to liberation—a ’50s cocktail dress giving way overnight to ’60s culottes, then to ’70s hippie attire, and so forth.
Surtitles, projected at the sides of the stage, are unobtrusive and helpful for English speakers, though hardly essential in an evening so predictable that it would be hard not to guess what’s going on at any given moment.CP