The Picture of Dorian Gray

by John Stoltenberg

The notorious aesthete Oscar Wilde believed that beauty is be-all and end-all. After The Painting of Dorian Gray met with moral outrage upon its publication in 1890, he appended a Preface to the novel in which he wrote:

The artist is the creator of beautiful things….

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.

They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

On those grounds alone, Wilde would have appreciated Synetic Theater’s stage adaptation, which delivers a dazzling bounty of beauty beyond what no other local theater company even dreams. Wilde might go further and deem the show’s rapt opening-night audience “the elect” if, and insofar as, they shared his belief that beautiful art means only beauty.

There’s a plenitude of sensory pleasures in sight and sound on stage, that’s for sure. Foremost is the cast of ten dancer-actors, who have been choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili in wildly imagined ways that emanate inner emotion and beam it out into the house. This effect most pleasantly surprises in the show’s several thrilling pas de deux: when the adored Dorian (Dallas Tolentino) dances with Basil (Robert Bowen Smith), the infatuated artist who paints his portrait…when Dorian dances with his Portrait-come-to-life (Philip Fletcher), first in attraction, later in antagonism…when Dorian dances with Sybil (Rachael Jacobs), the comely-but-doomed actress whom he loves then dumps. There are moments in their movements such as the mind’s eye would like to capture and tweet like a Vine vid but can’t—because they vanish as instantly as they appear.

Then there’s the evocative set full of unfilled frames (designed by Daniel Pinha), the dramatically primal lighting (Colin K. Bills), the elegantly apropos costumes (Kendra Rai), the inscrutably lovely multimedia (Riki K.), the astonishingly textured sound  (Thomas Sowers and Irakli Kavsadze). And above all there’s the powerfully affecting music composed by Konstantine Lortkipanidze. His score for The Painting of Dorian Gray features an indelible motif that is the equal or better of anything composed for film by James Horner, John Williams, or Philip Glass. I’m not hinting that Hollywood should poach him. I’m saying Lortkipanidze’s music for theater is also reason to go to this show.

Wilde’s Preface to the novel contains this stern advisory, which I interpret as a note to anyone posing as a critic:

All art is at once surface and symbol.

Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

Which means, if Wilde is correct, I’ll soon be at risk of something dire—because I’m about to deal with a dimension of The Painting of Dorian Gray that didn’t work: Wilde’s basic story. Though it serves sufficiently as framework for splendid scenes of sound and movement, it doesn’t work dramatically. The text seems archly archival. What was shocking in Victorian times now seems forced. And despite estimable efforts by adapter-director Paata Tsikurishvili and his multidextrous cast, the story’s tragic arcs do not cohere within the beautiful context that Synetic Theater has created.

This show has more spoken words than any previous Synetic Theater work. From my glance at the novel, it appears that Tsikurishvili and dramaturg Nathan Weinberger have excerpted much of the dialog verbatim. The script is therefore surfeited with Wildean aphorisms, quips, and epigrams, which initially amuse but after not long seem labored  (as they would not on the page). This has the enervating effect of assigning the actors to be mouthpieces instead of characters with compelling throughlines. Moreover, it makes glaringly obvious that as distilled here, Wilde’s allegorical plot is driven more by an abstract philosophical debate about aesthetics versus ethics than by clear character quests and convincing motivations.

Wilde’s not-so-hidden agenda is to argue that hedonism is morally neutral (the tenet by which he lived). His Preface to the novel tips us off to this thesis:

No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy is an unpardonable mannerism of style.

Okay, got it. Beautiful art is beyond right and wrong. (Wilde justified his own epicureanism as being beyond right and wrong as well: It was simply pursuit of beauties.) But to paraphrase the playwright Moss Hart (who famously said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union”): If you want to defend a precept, write a dissertation. In drama (as distinct from comedy), the net result of Wilde’s clever but cool and cerebral pontificating on this self-exculpatory point is that it keeps us the audience at a distance from emotionally engaging with the characters as we would wish—which leaves us watching tragic falls that feel so what?

Wilde’s story is centrally about fatal infatuation and terminal narcissism—with Dorian functioning both as object of Basil’s homoerotic desire and as desirer of first Sybil then of various vices and debauches. This much Synetic Theater succeeds at brilliantly. That Basil is head over easel in lust with Dorian could not be plainer. Dorian’s fleeting fling with Sybil heats up the stage. The scene in the opium den Dorian visits is eye-popping (a spectacle of flung paint by a hopped-up Jackson Pollock). And having  the Painting danced by a mirror image of Dorian yields genuinely original resonance, not only in the early exploratory homoerotic passages between the two but also in their later frenzied combat (muscularly choreographed by Ben Cunis). Wilde would have been impressed. Not to mention smitten.

So though I have to be honest about what doesn’t work and why, I must applaud Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili’s grand ambition. The company they cofounded is a treasure. This time out their reach somewhat exceeded their grasp, but I admire their audacity enormously. Because better than beautiful art is brave art.

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