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BWW Review: Gripping and Beautiful HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME at Synetic Theater

When the lights came down at the end of Synetic Theater's THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, in the quiet moment before applause began, someone behind me exhaled an amazed, "wow." I agree completely.

That wow was the first word I had heard in 95 minutes. The wordless HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is gripping storytelling at its best and it's conveyed with movement, spectacle, connection, and artistry.

The Synetic Theater adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic is set in 15th century Paris in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral. Esmeralda, the fiery dancer who is strong and compassionate, captures the attention of many, among them Quasimodo, who is shunned for his disability and was abandoned as a child at the door of the cathedral, and the cathedral's archdeacon, Frollo, who has rescued Quasimodo and raised him as his own. Frollo's obsession for the captivating Esmeralda splits him between lust and faith, belief and corruption, mind and body.

Director Paata Tsikurishvili calls the tale "beautifully disturbing." Through the production he explores the triangle of Frollo, Quasimodo and Esmeralda - what links them together and the tragic rending of their worlds. Nathan Weinberger, the adaptor/dramaturg, honed a compelling adaptation of Hugo's classic; a worthy addition to Synetic's wordless epic tales.

The production is truly an immersive ensemble piece with all actors and design elements significantly contributing to the whole.

Philip Fletcher is flawless in his depiction of Frollo's tormented journey. From a gentle moment at the show's opening as the pious man teaches Quasimodo to pray, Fletcher spirals downward into his obsession with Esmeralda. Fletcher physically contrasts the pained soul and upright citizen of Frollo's struggles. Even his body seems to drain of color as he unravels.

Vato Tsikurishvili as Quasimodo is a steady and heart-breaking presence. Tsikurishvili embodies Quasimodo's goodness and innocence; we understand his need for love and connection. Tsikurishvili's strength and physicality are mesmerizing, as in one scene pressing Esmeralda straight overhead away from harm.

Irina Kavsadze's Esmeralda commands attention; she is sure and charismatic in her depiction. Kavsadze shows a rich and complex Esmeralda of compassion, dignity, and honesty. As a dancer at the Paris feast day, Esmeralda exudes power and strength. With Gringoire we see her kindness and resourcefulness. Esmeralda's scenes with Phoebus are sexy, yearning, and full of heat. With Clopin and the Beggars Guild, Esmeralda fearlessly holds her own.

Robert Bowen Smith is appealing and touching as Gringoire, the musician who unwittingly trespasses upon Beggars Guild territory. Zana Gankhuyag's Phoebus is a strong pairing with Kavsadze; his extraordinary pas de deux with Esmeralda, with Gringoire and Frollo unseen and watching, was a highlight of the production. Lee Liebeskind gave power and bluster in the role of Clopin. Ensemble members Tori Bertocci, Anne Flowers, Raven Wilkes, Augustin Beall and Shu-nan Chu appeared in several roles, but most memorably as gargoyles. As if they are ripped from the cathedral's façade, the gargoyles arise from the cathedral roof and are present, like a Greek chorus, as the production progresses. The gargoyles haunt some of the more tumultuous scenes with Frollo, moving as one.

In a wordless production, Thomas Sowers' sound design and audio is critical for propelling the work. Music composed by Konstantine Lortkipanidze is an essential part of the experience. Brian Allard's lights bring us from the festival streets of Paris, to the heights of the cathedral eaves, to the candle-strewn interior of the church that is reminiscent of the gates of Hell. A giant crucifix is, at times, lit from within, at other times shrouded in fog and lit from above. The lights augment Anastasia Rurikova Simes' highly flexible and atmospheric set. Corrugated metal hints at church spires and pipe organs. Gargoyles, played by actors, nestle in the walls. The set folds in on itself and the multi-level wooden framing becomes the streets of Paris. Erik Teague's costumes feature rich textures and period touches while allowing ample movement. Esmeralda's frothy dress show power and flight. Frollo's buttoned-up vestments and public mask attempt to hide his inner turmoil. Masks and elaborate gargoyle hats are important features.

Movement is, of course, an essential element of the production. Irina Tsikurishvili's choreography is fluid, dramatic, and powerful; it is driven by and integrated with the unique characters. In addition to appearing as Quasimodo, Vato Tsikurishvili created the fight choreographer in the tense production that relied upon strong, connected, edge-of-your-seat bouts.

Runtime: 95 minutes with no intermission.

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (based on the novel by Victor Hugo, adapted by Nathan Weinberger) runs through June 11 with shows Wednesday - Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 2 pm. The production is at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street in Arlington, VA 22202. For tickets or information, please see the company's website here.

Photos by Johnny Shryock. Top: Vato Tsikurishvili as Quasimodo; second: Philip Fletcher as Frollo (center) with gargoyle ensemble; middle: Philip Fletcher as Frollo (left) with Vato Tsikurishvili as Quasimodo (right); next: Irina Kavsadze as Esmeralda (top), Vato Tsikurishvili as Quasimodo (center) with gargoyle ensemble; next: Irina Kavsadze as Esmeralda; bottom: Vato Tsikurishvili (Quasimodo) and Irina Kavsadze (Esmeralda).

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