Review: ‘The Mark of Cain’ at Synetic Theater

Fans of Synetic Theater’s music-and movement-based works derived from classic texts will find a surprise twist in the company’s latest offering. Typically, a Synetic extravaganza creates a vivid other world, someplace unto itself, visually voluptuous, aurally luscious, always a trip to somewhere fantabulous. But with The Mark of Cain, Synetic’s first wholly original devised work in five years, the other world collides with the real world. The mythic meets the immediate. And the impact is smashing.

With The Mark of Cain, according to Director Paata Tsikurishvili, Synetic set out to create “a neo-surrealist distillation of human history” that would illustrate how human evil began and how it persists in power that corrupts. Right there is a tipoff that something political might pop up.

Or maybe something more universal. Two large eyes set in triangles on either side of the stage (the eyes of God?) are weeping illuminated white balloon tears, as though all of creation is in mourning.

Ryan Sellers (Cain) in The Mark of Cain. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Accordingly, the show begins slowly. Performers move in slow motion. God (Philip Fletcher) kneels in dust downstage and from it forms two figures, Adam (Scott Brown) and Eve (Tori Bertocci), who explore their new environs and each other. A red balloon is locked in a cage, off limits. A sinister Dark Angel slithers in (Kathy Gordon) and tempts them, and soon the forbidden balloon bursts in their hands in a plume of red powder, signaling the origin of sin.

Up next is the origin of evil. Adam and Eve conceive two sons, whom they first mime, cradled in their arms then lead like toddlers by the hand. In one of the show’s many stunning image reveals, Cain (Ryan Sellers) and Abel (Dallas Tolentino) then step into the family tableau and take their parents’ hands.

Abel, in this retelling, becomes an artist whose medium is the Ensemble (Janine Baumgardner, Zana Gankhuyag, Irina Kavsadze, Megan Khaziran, Brown, and Bertocci), whom he beautifully sculpts and animates choreographically. Cain, jealous of his brother’s creative powers, attacks Abel and they fight, a pas de deux of rage against innocence that Sellers and Tolentino perform with fearsome force. Cain slays Abel then violently destroys the beauty his brother made. In a jarring physicalization of Cain’s destructive powers, Sellers’ brutal blows break the dancers’ bodies down as if to rubble, all without contact, only the evocation of the power of evil…and the evil of power.

Kathy Gordon (Dark Angel) and Ryan Sellers (Cain) in The Mark of Cain. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

God is displeased and brands Cain with a bloody emblem of shame. Reenter the Dark Angel, who seduces Cain into a reign of evil-doing that unfolds with quickening pace through human history. As each epoch is enacted, the Dark Angel crowns Cain with another symbol of unjust power, and he plays the part of smug despot with more and more relish. By the time Cain’s headwear is a red-starred military helmet and he and his troops are goose-stepping, the metaphor of evil descended in a direct line from mythic time to modern times has become powerfully persuasive.

And then comes the episode where Cain’s emblem of malevolent authority is no longer upon his head but a too-long red tie around his neck. You may have suspected the show was going there and it does, breathtakingly. Just as well as Synetic can retell a classic of literature wordlessly, the company now shows its chops evoking corruption and resistance viscerally, without a word being spoken.

Ryan Sellers (Cain) in The Mark of Cain. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Choreographer Irinia Tsikurishvili and Composer Koki Lortkipanidze along with Music Director Irakli Kavsadze have a remarkably organic collaboration that is evidenced in every dancer’s every breath and move. A sequence quoted from Ravelle’s Bolero becomes the musical equivalent of a showstopper. The adaptation, which is really mostly original, is credited to the Tsikurishvilis, Bertocci, and Nathan Weinberger. And together Scenic Designers Paata Tsikurishvili and Phil Charlwood, Lighting Design Brian Allard, and Costume Designer Alison Samantha Johnson have spectacularly fabricated an unreal world…in order that it may appear to us as only too real.

The Mark of Cain is a bold breakthrough for Synetic Theater, and an eloquent, unexpected experience to behold. It will leave its mark in your imagining.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

The Mark of Cain plays through August 13, 2017, at Synetic Theater – 1800 South Bell Street, in Crystal City, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.


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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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