Synetic Theater in Crystal City, Arlington, Virginia; January 10, 2014
One of Washington, DC’s most unique cultural assets, Synetic Theater, a popular physical theater company, presented its tenth wordless Shakespeare production, “Twelfth Night,” just when it should be seen. I learned from Wikipedia that the play’s title references the twelfth night following Christmas (the Feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the day when the three wise men gave gifts to the baby Jesus). In Elizabethan England, Twelfth Night was marked with, among other things, men dressing as women and women as men. Apparently, this role reversal had its origins in the Roman Saturnalia, a wild festival that took place around the same time of year (winter solstice) and involved masters becoming slaves for a day and vice versa.
“Twelfth Night,” true to its title, is a comedy featuring gender swaps, crossed social boundaries, and overall foolery. Although the plot is complicated, Synetic Theater’s version was relatively easy to follow. That’s a compliment to the troupe’s ability to tell stories through movement and to the director’s choice to set the play in the 1920s, with a silent film theme that made having occasional bits of dialogue on a screen seem perfectly in place. If you saw the Oscar-winning silent movie “The Artist” and adored it, chances are you’d also really enjoy Synetic’s “Twelfth Night.” The 1920s setting suits the play incredibly well, giving the designers and technical crew an inspiring time period around which to craft the festive mood of the play.
I predict “Twelfth Night” will be bringing in some awards. The acting and dancing were top-notch. In fact, so splendid was the dancing, showing off iconic dances from the 1920s like the charleston and the jitterbug, that Irina Tsikurishvili should be assured of getting a Helen Hayes Award nomination (recognizing achievement in DC area theater) for outstanding choreography. The show in many ways belonged to Ms. Tsikurishvili, who could not have been funnier or more charming in the lead role of Viola. She evoked Charlie Chaplin in the way she waddled. Her face was wonderfully emotive, displaying delight and despair with a cute curl of her lips. As well, her choreography not only captured the once popular flapper dances but made the cast look truly fabulous doing them. I can only imagine the hard work she and the actors did to make the dancing look so enjoyable and so effortless. The final effervescent moments of revelry in “Twelfth Night” electrified the audience. As the performers’ feet flew, our spirits soared along with them.
In addition to the brilliance of Ms. Tsikurishvili and her husband, artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili, I give tons of credit to costume designer Kendra Rai, set designer Phil Charlwood, lighting designer Colin K. Bills, resident composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze, sound designer Thomas Sowers, and video designer Igor Dmitry. As usual with Synetic, even the smallest details reach perfection. In this case, I especially loved the primarily black and white costumes, which weaved together a gorgeous mix of patterns – plaids and argyles, dots and stripes, with flapper feathers and fringe. This furnished a somewhat uniform look to “Twelfth Night,” and went along well with the silent movie era theme. The pops of bright color during the final scene stood out all the more because of the mostly black and white color palette and drove home the jubilant climax. The music, not surprisingly, made use of some tunes from Prohibition (1920-1933), like Duke Ellington’s 1931 composition, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” but I also heard some Scott Joplin ragtime, which predated the 1920s. The stage setup looked like a soundstage, with various props along the walls – ropes, ladders, a giant boot, and a Japanese gate. The star of the set, though, was an upright piano that folded out and opened up into a bar!
Two clowns, Fest (Ben Cunis) and Fabian (Vato Tsikurishvili), were introduced to the audience at the start of the play, when they clowned around while the house lights were up and patrons were still getting seated. They toted an old film camera and playfully spied on the characters as they filmed them. Cunis and Vato Tsikurishvili made exceptional clowns. They were a blast to watch. The gigantic pants worn by Vato Tsikurishvili provided endless laughs. The pants held innumerable objects inside, including the toy ship with which the pair enacted a storm, tossing the sinking the boat in a fish tank full of water as the actors simultaneously lurched and swayed.
Young Alex Mills, whom I fell in love with as Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” returned to silent Shakespeare as Viola’s twin brother Sebastian. In my opinion, he didn’t have enough time on stage, but I’m biased! Mills is not only handsome and a fine actor, but he’s hyper-flexible, which allows him to move like Gumby, putting his limbs in seemingly impossible positions. “Twelfth Night” may have birthed a new favorite for me, though. Irina Kavsadze stood out as Maria, the mischievous red-headed maid. She comically plotted and teased and swept the floor in a French maid costume with the utmost skill. Finally, Irakli Kavsadze was terrific as Malvolio. Among the laugh-out-loud moments, he may have had the most. The poor guy lost his toupe and his mind, to great comic effect.