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Follow the Yellow Brick Road to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Synetic Theater takes a new approach to a classic tale at the Davis Performing Arts Center.

Emily Whitworth (Dorothy) and Kevin Thorne II in a scene from Synetic Theater's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, directed by Ryan Sellers, at Georgetown University.
(© Brittany Diliberto)

If you've ever seen a production by Synetic Theater, you know the company employs movement, sound, mime, gestures, music, and color much more than it relies on language to reach the audience. Now, Synetic is using L. Frank Baum's beloved tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as the basis for an innovative production about self-knowledge and honesty. And true to form, much of the story is told by visual or aural implication rather than by speech. Dorothy, the wizards, and the witches speak, but until the end of the play, none of Dorothy's friends can talk.

This Wizard centers around a young man named Oz (Robert Bowen Smith) who fancies himself a wizard. His presence is woven through Tori Bertocci and Ryan Sellers's adaptation. The play begins with him sitting alone, constructing a flying machine that transforms into a cyclone — presumably the cyclone that sweeps young Dorothy (Emily Whitworth) and her faithful dog Toto (Jacob Yeh) from their home in Kansas to Munchkinland. The good Witch of the North (Suzy Alden) appears and gives Dorothy a pair of magic silver shoes. She tells Dorothy that in order to return home, she must follow a yellow brick road to the Emerald City, confront the Wizard, and ask him to return her to Kansas.

Along the road, Dorothy and Toto meet a Scarecrow (Dallas Tolentino) who hungers after a brain, a rusted Tin Man (Philip Fletcher) who wants a heart, and a cowardly Lion (Lee Liebeskind) who would love to be brave. Dorothy invites them to travel along with her to meet the Wizard and achieve their dreams.

Whitworth is charming as Dorothy, kind and gentle to the well-meaning creatures she meets and defiant to the mean and manipulative. Smith is equally fine as the evil-spirited Oz, creating a sense of the threatening nature of the environment around Dorothy. Tolentino lends his sensational dancing skills to the role of the Scarecrow, collapsing on the stage as though he has no bones and moments later pulling himself up as if by an invisible cord. Fletcher's embodiment of the creaky Tin Man is also impressive. His creation of hand puppets to act out the story of why he does not have a heart is one of the high points of the play. Liebeskind offers comic relief as the lion who is scared of his own shadow, and Yeh is funny as Toto.

The ensemble plays a variety of roles along the journey to the Emerald City, from poppies that come to life to flying monkeys. Together with the lead actors, their precise, energetic work — under the direction of producing director Paata Tsikurishvili and director Ryan Sellers — is an important element contributing to the richness of this Wizard.

Scenic designer Patti Kalil uses rectangular boxes on both sides of the stage that are turned by hand and painted with different scenes on each side to suggest everything from Oz's workshop to his throne room. Bertocci's choreography is a particular highlight in the Dainty China Country scene, where the Princess and the Joker of this country communicate only through dance. Composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze's marvelous score includes a playful jig, a passionate tango, an ominous organ piece to mark Dorothy's arrival in Oz and discrete bell tones to end the piece.

There is a great deal of magic in the original Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Synetic Theater's production follows in Baum's tradition by emphasizing simplicity and innocence and by letting the art of both verbal and nonverbal storytelling create its own magic onstage.

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