When Paata Tsikurishvili's Synetic Theatre updates a classic they usually shoot for a classic feel. "Dracula" had a Victorian feel, "Jason and the Argonauts" could well have been in ancient Greece (or Tsikurishvili's native southwestern Asian country of Georgia). "Hamlet," well "Hamlet the Rest is Silence" was not only wordless, it was timeless.
This time, they bring Goethe's classic tale of Faust who sold his soul is so far up to date that it feels nearly post-modern. The tale actually dates to sometime in 16th century, but Goethe wrote his version in the 18th. Now the Tsikurishvilis -- Paata, the director and co-adaptor (with Nathan Weinberger) and Irina, the choreographer and leading lady -- bring it to the stage in their inimitable blend of drama and dance. In the process, they give it a euro-punk, post-mod feel with the cast in torn jeans, tight t-shirts and the occasional nipple ring in a production set to a rock-flavored score featuring original music by Aaron Forbes as well as music of other composers.
The result is a production to be admired but not necessarily one to be enjoyed quite as much as most of their earlier work has been. There is something a bit off-putting in the excessive modernity that blocks full enjoyment. Perhaps it is the feeling that the updating was intended to draw connections between ancient themes and modern ones and that, if so, the connections aren't quite as well established as you would expect.
Goethe's themes of the dangers of too much knowledge and the bitter bargain required to acquire it were raised in the telling of an already ancient tale of an alchemist overreaching the boundaries of what mortal man should know.
Genetic research may be the alchemy of today, and modern issues of science versus morality seem to be hinted at but never quite engaged in this production.
WHILE THE FEEL is surprisingly contemporary, the approach of the Tsikurishvilis remains both unique and impressive. With performers who dance and act in a highly stylized manner, this show could not be performed by just any theater company nor just any dance troupe. The style, the skills and the discipline are specifically Synetic. Of the cast of eleven, only one, Matthew McGloin, is making a first appearance with the company.
Heading the cast are the trio of Greg Marzullo in the title role, Dan Istrate as the devil to whom he sells his soul, and Irina Tsikurishvili as the woman he thinks would make the bargain worth while. The three bring an athleticism and a remarkable intensity to the production that carry the performance swiftly through its one and a half hour duration.
The drama is played out on a stage littered with books and experimental equipment but dominated by a bath tub from which characters emerge and in which key events take place, including at least one graphic sex scene involving what the program describes as "brief nudity." The nudity is partial but is not what is usually meant by "brief." It is one of many highly visual and very effective scenes in a production that approaches but never quite reaches the level of fascination that previous Synetic productions have delivered.
After a brief run in the Spectrum, "Faust" will move to the Kennedy Center's Family Theatre (although this is far from a family friendly production) for a three-week stay as the first production in a new partnership with the center that makes Synetic a "constituent company" of the Kennedy Center. The agreement calls for at least one Synetic show to play the center each year for the next five years.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as on Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.