Synetic returns home with nod to master of macabre

Ryan Sellers stars in Synetic Theater's "The Madness of Poe." (Johnny Shyrock Photography)

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It’s been a pretty macabre year and a half, so it’s perhaps fitting that Synetic Theater returns to indoor performances for the first time since the onset of the pandemic with a celebration of that master of the macabre – Edgar Allan Poe.

Indeed: The maestro of morbid, the Paganini of the perverse, the father of the freaky, the svengali of the surreal is the central attraction in this new work, as Synetic samples from “The Raven” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” and ties it together with the tale of Poe’s fight to retain his sanity in a battle between genius and madness.

Throughout the wild ride dubbed “The Madness of Poe,” it’s an open question whether the namesake has control of his creations, or if the characters have taken control of him.

“We thought that we would do something light,” chuckled Synetic artistic director (and the show’s director) PaataTsikurishvili as he welcomed the audience to an Oct. 10 preview performance.

“Have fun!” Tsikurishvili said, although “buckle up!” might also have been an equally appropriate kickoff to the work.

Spread across a single act spanning 90 visually arresting minutes, the show brings together the artistry that Synetic has become known for over two decades in local residence. Though not wordless like some of its productions, “The Madness of Poe” relies on creative choreography (Irina Tsikurishvili), costumes (Alex Duimstra and Stacy Walker), lighting (Doug Del Pizzo and Malory Hartman) and haunting compositions (Konstantine Lortkipanidze) to aid in driving the story home.

Ryan Sellers stars, performing admirably along with Alex Mills and Nutsa Tediashvili in the “Usher” portion of the proceedings. In terms of sheer nightmare-inducing creepiness (and that’s a good thing), Philip Fletcher stands out as the servant at the aforementioned Usher home. Maryam Najafzada has a creative turn as the Raven.

Synetic last took up Poe all the way back in 2007 when it mounted a production of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The 19th-century author is a good fit for a troupe that likes the slightly off-kilter and unusual, Paata Tsikurishvili said in the director’s notes of the show.

“He was constantly surrounded by and lived with death, growing in darkness as a tree does in sunshine,” he said. “The result was a creative mind charged with terror, steeped in longing – and filled with some of the bleakest humor ever written.”

(And indeed, “The Madness of Poe” offers a couple of laugh-out-loud lines that help the leaven the more serious moments.)

After the pandemic sent arts groups scurrying to adapt – and left some on life support, or worse – Northern Virginia performing-arts organizations have been coming back to life with indoor productions under a varying set of health protocols. (Synetic requires either proof of vaccination or recent COVID test, and masks are required of patrons. Performers work without them.)

In remarks to the audience before the Sunday-night show, Paata Tsikurishvili seemed overjoyed to be back in front of audience members. “I feel the need to re-introduce myself,” he said. “It’s been so long.”

“The last year and a half has been a rough decade,” he said with a chuckle. And one indeed wonders whether even the genius of Poe could have envisioned the COVID environs.

For those who do not fear the terrifying tales of Poe quite as much as they do the sometimes Byzantine parking situation in Crystal City (where the theater is located), there is parking-garage access to get you right to the venue, if you known where it is. Or take my handy alternate: Park on South Eads Street (anywhere from 18th Street to 23rd Street south will do, depending on how far an amble you desire) and traverse Route 1 to the theater.

That option keeps you above ground, which might be the best place to be after spending 90 minutes with a tale sure to send some shivers down your spine.

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“The Madness of Poe” runs, appropriately enough, through Halloween (Oct. 31) at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell St. in Arlington. For tickets and information, see the Website at https://synetictheater.org.