Adapting ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ for Synetic Theater’s Production by Nathan Weinberger

Nathan Weinberger.
Nathan Weinberger.

My first instinct when adapting Dorian Gray was that it would be easy—never a good sign. That being said though, come on: Synetic and all the creepy, gothic elements that everyone associates with Dorian—a perfect fit, right? Yeah, but then when I actually thought about it, I realized just what I’d gotten myself into. First, The Picture of Dorian Gray was written by one of the wordiest, most cerebral writers of all time. Even more, at the heart of the story is a static, two-dimensional rendering—a picture. All for a company that specializes in movement? How can we pull this off? But there are people who ask the seemingly impossible and get exactly what they want—not by bullying or demanding, but by inspiring; by slowly and patiently raising the bar and getting the best they can from those around them. Paata [Tsikurishvili] is one of those people.

Dallas Tolentino and Philip Fletcher. Photo by Koko Lanham.
Dallas Tolentino and Philip Fletcher. Photo by Koko Lanham.

So okay, we have to somehow come up with a way to liquefy the solid, to make something that doesn’t move moveable, malleable, exciting. How? Well, first, the picture: We make the picture of Dorian Gray not a picture at all, but a living, breathing alter-ego which mirrors Dorian’s movements—both emotionally and physically. I would say that was Synetic’s first hook into the story, the beginning of its adaptation for the company. But then the big question for me became how to make these characters not just mouthpieces for their respective life philosophies, but actual characters, actual people. This is, I think, an issue inherent in Wilde’s novel and I have yet to see an adaptation that has avoided it without tearing the heart out of the whole thing. The solution then, I think, is to embrace the philosophy, embrace the words. This is mainly a question of the acting and directing. First, we needed actors who could successfully pull off such rich, full-blooded text. When I saw who we had cast, I was not even remotely worried. So then it just became a question of the directing: How, for example, do we make such an obvious philosophical plug such as Lord Henry’s “Live The Life That Is In You” monologue believable? How do we make that sound more than someone simply mouthing an author’s ideas? The solution—a highly appropriate one I think—was that Paata had the actor come downstage, the lights dim on him and he simply launches into it.

The delivery is big, grand, unapologetically theatrical, musical. Almost Shakespearean. It is a soliloquy, pure and simple, both in content and style, because, simply put, that’s who this character is. It is not naturalistic, to be sure, but that’s because the story is not naturalistic and neither is Synetic’s style. A similar problem lies in Lord Henry’s (really Wilde’s) famous aphorisms and quips. I was concerned that all anyone would say is “Meh, he just cribbed everything from the book.” I didn’t, but, either way, much more important than this was the question of how to make the quipping sound like natural speech, because, really, who talks that way? Conversing in one-liners? It grates after awhile. The answer to this, I believe, is that while Lord Henry may be very superficially funny, he’s actually quite sad when you see that the banter and glib philosophy is his very being. It’s all he’s got. Take the constant wisecracking away and you take away the very essence of Lord Henry. So again, I opted to embrace the wit, the unending snarkiness. It’s simply who the character is. Overcoming these sorts of inherent difficulties, by either embracing them or coming up with new ways of expressing them—telling this story in general—is a challenge for anyone who has ever tried it. And in our case, it’s a further challenge, one to both ourselves and our audiences—to not only push our boundaries, but to push our audiences’ expectations of us as well; to show them something else; to surprise them by trying something new.

What else, after all, is the point? This was always something that I tried to keep at the forefront of my mind during the entire process of working on Dorian Gray.The Picture of Dorian Gray plays through November 3, 2013 at Synetic Theater – 1800 South Bell Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

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Dallas Tolentino on Playing Dorian Gray at Synetic Theater by Joel Markowitz.

Yvonne French’s review of The Picture of Dorian Gray.


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