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The Decameron, a series of 14th century Italian novellas about surviving the Black Death, is enjoying a surprising renaissance during the current coronavirus crisis.
On July 7, the New York Times Magazine released “The Decameron Project,” a series of 29 short stories that contemporary authors wrote in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For New York’s Public Theater, playwright Richard Nelson penned a sequel to his Apple Family plays that was performed on Zoom. After high school English teacher Barbara Apple explains The Decameron’s premise—10 young people sheltering together each tell a story for 10 days—the Apple siblings take turns telling stories about how they pass the time. In Toronto, DLT, a theater company with roots in Florence, Italy, set up “Theatre On-Call,” which allows patrons to dial-in and hear a different Decameron-based story each day.
Now, Crystal City’s Synetic Theater, a physical theater troupe that specializes in literary adaptations, usually relying on music and movement to tell stories rather than spoken dialogue, has created a Decameronof its own.
This Decameron takes the form of 31 short films, ranging in length from four to 17 minutes, each inspired by one or more of Boccaccio’s stories. For as little as $10 (the entire series is offered on a pay-what-you-can basis), viewers can access a four-hour virtual rabbit hole of content that approximates the Synetic experience without having to wander through the underground warrens of Crystal City looking for the brick-and-mortar theater.
Most vignettes fall into one of three categories, with some overlap: clownish, Charlie Chaplin-like silent films; explorations of loneliness and tedium, evoked with varying degrees of comedy; and relationship dramas following Boccaccio’s bizarre plot outlines, including lots of love triangles and a head buried in a pot of basil.
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A handful of outliers rank among the series’ best films. For Day 2, dancer Francesca Jandasek donned a series of wedding gowns and wandered through the Los Angeles foothills to film a gorgeous mediation on religion, loneliness, and desire. For Day 3, Renata Loman created a Punch and Judy show that, while not exactly copying Avenue Q, incorporates multi-position puppet sex.
“Sexy time is the best time, for sure,” advises a Dr. Ruth-esque marionette. “Anytime you can get sexy time, you should have sexy time. You all work from home, right?”
She goes on to tell a story about an angry husband who crams his cheating wife into a wine barrel and sells her off like cheap pinot noir. If that sounds odd, skip ahead to Day 7 for company member Thomas Beheler’s condensed “Draw My Life” version of 10 stories sketched on a white board. It’s hysterical, while also providing quality context for the 14th-century source material.
This Synetic Decameron is not quite binge-worthy, which is to say, you’ll appreciate the films more if you digest a few at a time rather than all in one go. Synetic grouped them into 10 clusters of three or four, dropping a new set each day. (Be forewarned that two clunkers, which involve a very sappy COVID-19 love triangle and a melodrama about two dudes fighting over toilet paper, pop up on Days 3 and 8, respectively.)
While the more serious ruminations include some gorgeous cinematography, such as Chelsea Thaler’s game of chess played on a deserted beach, it’s the slapstick “silent” films that consistently play to Synetic’s strengths. Because the movement-based company features non-unionized performers, actors sometimes start there and move on to D.C.’s larger Equity theaters. That was the case for Ryan Sellers, who virtually returns to Synetic to portray a fake beggar discovered by his neighbor on Day 8. Several performers who moved on from D.C. physically also make a comeback in the Decameron, including Jandasek and her partner Dan Istrate. She reappears in his film as one of two comely fitness instructors who convince a lonely, stodgy-looking neighbor into having a three-way that incorporates a Gyrotonic pulley tower. Istrate’s Day 6 movie ends with the camera focused on Jandasek’s gorgeous gams. The couple is doing the tango, sideways, while moving up a staircase. Sexy time indeed.
All performers were paid for contributing to The Decameron, and received mentorship and filmmaking help as needed. Perhaps the most important takeaway from this often brilliant series is that Synetic artists are versatile, resourceful, and abundantly creative. If these films represent what they can cook up while sheltering in their homes, great things should transpire when they reunite together onstage.
To watch the show, visit synetictheater.org. Pay what you can.