A gloriously bizarre ‘Tell-Tale Heart’ beats at Synetic Theater

The Edgar Allen Poe adaptation marks a triumphant return for Director Paata Tsikurishvili and affirms the company's status as a world-class theater.

Two geniuses, Synetic Artistic Director Paata Tsikurishvili and Edgar Allan Poe, come together in The Tell-Tale Heart. Sparks fly. And, as always with the greatest adaptations, a totally new creation comes into being, revealing aspects of the earlier version that we had never imagined.

The Tell-Tale Heart at Synetic Theater marks a triumphant return for director Tsikurishvili, fully recovered from a serious accident, and artistically exhilarated. With the production of Poe’s legendary tale, Synetic reaffirms its status as a world-class theater and one of DC’s essential cultural assets.

Alex Mills as Edgar and Irakli Kavsadze as the Old Man in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’ Photo by Jorge Amaya.

Poe (1809–1849), poet, critic, and editor, was a master of horror, the inventor of the detective story, and the first truly international American writer. Dickens attempted to get him a British publisher. Charles Baudelaire, poet and critic, author of Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), was also an admirer. A mini-series based loosely on Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher will premiere on Netflix on October 12.

When Poe wrote the original, his wife was in fragile health. He had started drinking. He had just resigned from Graham’s magazine, making it more difficult to place his work. The Tell-Tale Heart was published in a short-lived journal, the Pioneer, in January of 1843.

In Synetic’s adaptation, we first see Alex Mills as Edgar, imprisoned in a cage that hangs from the ceiling. He begins with a confession. He was the caregiver to an Old Man whom he killed. As Mills’ Edgar struggles to convince us that he is not mad, he succeeds magnificently in proving that he in fact is. His obsession with the Old Man’s hideous eye has driven him to murder. To quote Poe’s narrator:

True—nervous—very dreadfully nervous I have been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?

The Old Man (Irakli Kavsadze, who is also the music supervisor) sits in a wheelchair, surrounded by open shelves full of books, knick-knacks, and other mysterious curios. Sometimes he screams and points at monsters only he can see. He suffers from dementia. Moment by moment, Kavsadze offers us a consummate portrait of human deterioration.

Alex Mills as Edgar gives an astonishing performance, sometimes brutal, sometimes elegantly callous, sometimes pensive. He reads. He serves the Old Man food, and takes it away. He listens to a music box that plays a song from Carousel. His Edgar’s moral degradation is contradicted by his youth and energy. Mills’ range is remarkable; whether writhing on the floor, dancing, or staring at the Old Man with a mixture of fascination and dread. As in Hamlet, we are waiting for him to kill. And the aftermath, once it comes, will be extraordinary.

TOP: Alex Mills as Edgar with Josh Lucas as Vulture; ABOVE: The Synetic Ensemble as the Vultures (Josh Lucas, Kaitlyn Shifflett, Vato Tsikurishvili, Zana Gankhuyag, Lev Belolipetski) in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’ Photos by Jorge Amaya.

The other major characters are some of the most gloriously bizarre you will ever see on a stage: the Vultures (Lev Belolipetski, Vato Tsikurishvili, Kaitlynn Shifflett, Tony Amante, and Josh Lucas). Some are huge; all wear black costumes with red feathered heads and gigantic, knifelike beaks. Sometimes they are amusing; mostly, they are terrifying. They have emotions, too; they shake their heads with a kind of straitlaced disdain when they think no one is looking. You can almost hear them saying, “Tsk tsk! What were they thinking?”

At times these murderous birds seem almost well-intentioned. One rides in on a bike. They bring in balloons. They circle around with what look like candy canes. At other times, it’s hard to know exactly what they are doing. At one point, a hand comes out of the sofa and pulls Edgar down. Next, the head of a Vulture appears behind him. They regard each other solemnly, Edgar’s face almost touching the vulture’s beak.

Later there are scenes of abject terror. Choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili (and co-founder of Synetic with her husband, Paata) has devised an elegant yet horrifying dance for Edgar and the Vultures, which brings the audience to its feet.

Irakli Kavsadze as the Old Man and Alex Mills as Edgar in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’ Photo by Jorge Amaya.

Scenic Designer Daniel Pinha asks, in an interview, “How can we fully appreciate life while our faculties remain intact…” The scenery, which moves frequently, is replete with images; among them a giant purple eye. The lighting designed by Brian S. Allard is imaginative and rich in contrasts; blue, gold, and, many times, red. The costume design by Erik Teague is full of color, detail, and Poe’s macabre beauty. Resident Composer Koki Lortkipanidze blends classical, Spanish, and many other themes to create the exquisite score. Resident Dramaturg Nathan Weinberger expands the story artfully while preserving the essence of Poe’s eerie vision.

Suspended between life and death, reality and fantasy, Poe’s (unnamed) narrator in the original story is unreliable, yet mesmerizing in his psychopathy—almost a preliminary sketch of Showtime’s Dexter. Such extremes prompt us to examine the deeper meaning of certain emotions; anger, fear, and paradoxically, empathy.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.

The Tell-Tale Heart plays through November 5, 2023, at Synetic Theater in the underground Crystal City Shops, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, VA. Tickets ($35–$65) are available online, at the theater box office (open an hour before showtime), by email at [email protected], or by phone at (703) 824-8060 x117.

The program for The Tell-Tale Heart is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional but recommended for all patrons, staff, and ushers during shows and events. See Synetic Theater’s complete COVID-19 Safety Protocols here.

The Tell-Tale Heart

Old Man — Irakli Kavsadze
Edgar — Alex Mills
Vulture — Lev Belolipetski
Vulture — Kaitlynn Shifflett
Vulture — Tony Amante
Vulture — Josh Lucas
Vulture/Edgar Understudy — Zana Gankhuyag
Vulture/Old Man Understudy — Vato Tsikurishvili
Understudy — Natan Maël Gray

Director — Paata Tsikurishvili
Choreographer — Irina Tsikurishvili
Resident Dramaturg/Adaptor — Nathan Weinberger
Assistant Director/Fight Choreographer — Vato Tsikurishvili
Resident Composer — Koki Lortkipanidze
Music Supervisor — Irakli Kavsadze
Technical Director — Phil Charlwood
Costume Designer — Erik Teague
Associate Costume Designer — Alexa Diumstra
Lighting Designer — Brian S. Allard
Assistant Lighting Designer — Hailey LaRoe
Sound Designer/Engineer — Brandon Cook
Props Designer — Claire Caverly
Scenic Designer — Daniel Pinha
Assistant Scenic Designer — Stella Pugliesi
Stage Manager — Joshua Stout
Interim Rehearsal Stage Manager — Claire Beekman
Assistant Stage Manager — Khue Duong

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Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She has an extensive background in theater. Her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied Classics and English at Barnard and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe.


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