Synetic Theatre’s ‘My Father’s Dragon’ Is an Imaginative and Joyous Experience

by John Ellis

Do you believe that theatre needs to use words in order to effectively tell a story? Sadly, I think the sentiment of most people would cause them to answer “yes” to that question. Which is a shame since humans have been enacting stories without using words for millenniums. The tradition is long, varied, and wonderful and is still being honored by theatre artists around the world. With Synetic Theatre, those living in the Washington, D.C. area have a world-class movement theatre at their doorsteps. And Synetic Theatre’s current production, My Father’s Dragon, is a vivid demonstration of the power contained in physical movement, aided by lights, props, and music, to unlock the imagination.

Resisting the urge to provide a history of the use of “silent” physicality to tell stories (wordless theatre), I’m going to limit myself to bemoaning the scorn felt by many Americans regarding mime and silent films. The vaudeville tradition that many of the actors brought to filmmaking in the medium’s nascent stage gave us performances that are far more layered and creative than most people give them credit for. Likewise, and extending the definition of mime to things like Commedia dell’Arte and the Noh theatre of Japan (begging the pardon of purists), wordless movement theatre has a rich history of providing audiences with enjoyable and meaningful performances that are denied to many due to a cultural prejudice towards the art of miming and real clown-work.

I’ve had some training in mime and movement work, and am fascinated (and in awe) of actors who can effectively tell a story using just their bodies and facial expressions. I would love for everybody to embrace the artform, too. While I can only do so much in encouraging others to discover the magical storytelling of movement theatre, I can do a lot in sowing the seeds of appreciation in the lives of my children. Thankfully, Synetic Theatre is making my job much easier. For others, friends and readers of this website who live in the DMV, I strongly encourage you to check out Synetic Theatre.

Located in Arlington, VA, Synetic Theatre has the goal of, “[redefining] theater by blending innovative techniques and movement, investing in artists’ growth, and creating unforgettable visceral experiences for every audience.”

Steeped in the traditions of dance, movement theatre, technology, and visual arts, Synetic Theatre is led by its cofounders Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili. Known for producing wordless Shakespeare (my daughter is looking forward to their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this spring), Synetic Theatre has introduced DC area audiences to the joy and magic of movement theatre. Its latest production, My Father’s Dragon, is geared towards children, but adults will enjoy it, too. My wife and I enjoyed the performance we saw almost as much as our kids did.

At one point, towards the beginning of the play, out of the corner of my eye I saw my son fall out of his seat. He’s eight, so I wasn’t too concerned, but I did turn to check on him. He was lying on the floor doubled up in laughter at the comic antics playing out on the stage. Over the years, I’ve become increasingly annoyed at the staid, stuffy rules of etiquette to which theatre audiences are expected to conform. I’ll never forgot watching Michael Jordan’s “shot,” the one where he switched hands in mid-air during the 1991 NBA Finals. Unrestrained in my physical response, I jumped off the couch in awe of what I had just witnessed. Theatre should have moments that provoke unrestrained physical responses from the audience, too. In turn, the audience should feel free to respond without censor. I saw an example of that watching my son enjoy Synetic Theatre’s My Father’s Dragon.

Throughout the show, every time I would glance over at my son, he was rapturously engaged in the play – from unrestrained delight to mesmerized worry. Even my jaded, “cool” thirteen-year-old daughter was held captive by what was unfolding on the stage. Her face betrayed that the magic of Synetic Theatre had taken over her imagination. Her movements in the seat were propelled by the rhythm of the story’s beats playing in front of her. Really, and I may be biased, but the reactions of my son and daughter should be all you need in order to be sold. However, in case there are some who reject the notion that the proof is in the pudding, I’ll break down some of the details of Synetic Theatre’s production of My Father’s Dragon.

Since Phil Charlwood’s set reminds me of my first production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I may be biased. That being said, before the play begins, with lights shimmering and shadowing through the unseen leaves (lighting design by Ian Claar) the magical forest pulls you into the imaginative feast before all the guests are even seated at the table. Once the feast begins, the audience is brought into a world of friendship, courage, and adventure.

The cast, led by Sharisse Taylor (Cat) and Scott Whalen (Elmer Elevator) doesn’t misplay a beat. And, without the normal crutch of words, the beats are complex, varied, and come quickly. Yet, with deftness and joyful energy, the cast of My Father’s Dragon unfolds the story in ways that provoke laughter, concern, empathy, sorrow, and joy. For those who are skeptical that a story can be told without words, go and prove me wrong. Although, I’m willing to bet that it won’t take long for the performances to draw you in and cause you to forget that you once believed a script is necessary for good theatre.

Aiding the actors’ facial expressions and physicality, the choreography, under the direction of Tori Tolentino, taps into the audience’s imagination with a spellbinding power that propels the story forward but without sacrificing nuance. For me, one of the highlights was Elmer Elevator dancing in the city as he busked. In the moment, his audience, the ensemble (Justin Bell, Kat Gardenas-Cruz, and Nutsa Tediashvili), was under Elmer’s sway. Herding, prodding, and engaging, the safe assumption is that Elmer’s flimsy hat will be filled to the brim with coins upon the completion of his performance. Sadly, and foreshadowing what often happens in bad theatre (which My Father’s Dragon is not), once the dance is completed, Elmer’s hold over the townspeople fades. The trance is proven to be illusionary. For me, that’s one of the overriding subtexts. The cynical and the self-described sophisticated are not the right audience for committed performers. Thankfully, as Elmer follows Cat into the magical forest, he find his audience and overcomes them through his courageous use of the many common objects held within his backpack.

Stepping out of the review for a moment, there are two lessons for theatre lovers in Elmer’s mastery over the creatures in the forest: 1. Courage is a must in the making of theatre. 2. An audience that gives itself over to mystery and fun is an important part of storytelling. In other words, courage is required of the audience, too.

Of course, audiences are aided when the cast and production throw the doors to the world of imagination wide open and compel them in. We enter the unknown together. And Synetic Theatre’s My Father’s Dragon defies the sullen and dull, tapping into the part of us that remembers that we are made in the image of the Great Storyteller. Helping prop the door to the world of imagination wide open are Matthew McGee’s puppets.

The forest creatures are magnificently rendered by McGee and masterfully manipulated by the ensemble. Tolentino’s choreographed use of the space brought the audience further and further into the forest until even we believed that the energetic puppets were swirling around us. The entire cast did an excellent job of not only controlling the puppets but also embodying the puppets through their own physical movement as they moved around the stage. A special shout-out needs to be given to Nutsa Tediashvili’s work with the mouse puppet. If you want to see a master-class in letting go and not allowing fear to encroach into any part of a performance, I commend you Tediashvili’s work with the mouse puppet. Her movements, facial expressions, and control of the puppet melded into a single entity telling the story of the curious mouse. I loved it and my kids loved it.

My Father’s Dragon runs until January 6, not a lot of time left to see this wonderful show. If you already appreciate movement theatre, you’ll appreciate Synetic Theatre’s current production. If you have yet to experience movement theatre, My Father’s Dragon makes a great introduction to the rich artistry of wordless theatre developed by theatre artists over generations.

You can purchase tickets to My Father’s Dragon by clicking here.

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