Theater is often synonymous with dialogue, but Synetic Theater’s Madness of Poe explores what happens when the lines are erased. Entering its third decade, the acclaimed physical production house in Crystal City uses mostly movement to tell the tale. (If physical theater is a new concept, think of it as a musical where the songs are replaced by movement.) In that sense, Madness of Poe, running through Oct. 31, is a well-crafted production with limited lines and thoughtfully, and beautifully, curated dance and prop use.
For its latest iteration on Edgar Allen Poe’s writings, Synetic revisited its 2007 production of The Fall of the House of Usher—the story of two twins driven mad by their family’s estate—and decided it was ripe for reinvention. As the name suggests, Madness of Poe is a mashup of sorts, combining House of Usher with perhaps Poe’s most famous work, The Raven.
The 90-minute play opens on Poe (Ryan Sellers) asleep at his desk and dreaming as birdlike papers flutter overhead. But the dream soon dissolves into nightmare. The Raven (Maryam Najafzada), with a knack for scaling tall props, appears. Her energy is both birdlike and mocking. The stage spins, Poe awakens, and he receives a letter from a friend asking him to visit the House of Usher.
Here, things get decidedly creepy, in part because Philip Fletcher, who plays the Servant, brings some serious Michael Myers energy to his silent, imposing character. He’s what nightmares are made of. While Roderick (Alex Mills) comes across as both disturbed and predatory. The ensemble, played by Megan Khaziran, Chris Galindo, Sean Flowers, and Ariel Kraje, provide another silent yet loud element of gothic horror to the production. Their movement in and out of sync channels the inhumane as they haunt the house and its inhabitants.
For those not wholly versed in the Baltimore author’s 19th century American horror, Madness of Poe leaves a couple of plot holes and raised at least one eyebrow with moments of rape-y undertones (those same undertones exist in Poe’s House of Usher). But the production truly excels in its stagecraft. Though the stage is of humble size, and the props are simple, the use of both is a visual delight. From the floating papers scrawled with text to rotating windows and bookshelves that transform into doors and garden gates, scenic and properties designer Phil Charlwood outdoes himself with near seamless transitions. Choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili also gets applause for her excellent and eerie dances that are enthralling to watch. Of note, Lady Madeline (Nutsa Tediashvili) infuses her movement with a range of emotion throughout the production, several times falling to the ground in seizure. She is captivating.
However, because the stagecraft, choreography, and sound are so well done it was especially distracting when a few mishaps occurred. Visible ear pieces, spanx, and a mic box at times broke the the enchantment. Likewise, the music almost perfectly builds with tension (ask any horror lover, music can make a story—where would Halloween or Jaws be without those iconic chords?), so when the beat drops into nightclub electro during an ill-fated love affair, it’s oddly jarring and pulls away from the time period that’s been so well set on stage.
Still, the production is perfectly timed for the season and admirably provides a level of thrills and chills rarely achieved in stage production. Moreover, Synetic’s near-wordless spin on Poe’s stories offers a new and compelling way to consider the author and his works. Fans of Poe, gothic horror, and those who are goth at heart will be spellbound.
Madness of Poe at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell St., Arlington, to Oct. 31. (703) 824-8060. synetictheater.org. $20–$60.