At the opening of the third production in Synetic Theater Company’s Silent Shakespeare Theater Festival ‘Speak No More’ I thought to myself, how can they top the muscular, driving ambition of their Macbeth? Or the sinuous, mind-blowing staged metaphor of the central spine of Othello (Never has jealousy been made so seductive or so evil.) The evening did not diminish the other two productions, but this Romeo and Juliet is breathlessly youthful, deliciously sensual, and, as usual with Synetic, when the fights come, they kick ass!
Romeo and Juliet is a younger play in so many ways. Its rhyming iambic lines can get sing-songy, the role of Romeo become a soft-sap, and the play land leaden in less than accomplished hands. Wordless, Synetic has found a great opportunity to define anew the seminal work of star-crossed love. It succeeds, well deserving of its six nominations in the 2009 Helen Hayes Awards, garnering two awards including one for outstanding direction by Paata Tsikurishvili.
Anastasia R. Simes’ strong design dictates a lot of elements in the production with her floor to ceiling dark mesh of gears and other clock works. She has made Time, a strong literary theme in the play, a veritable character. A giant pendulum swing starts the action as if preparing us all for a countdown. Time pushes the action forward, in a headlong rush of not even “two hours traffic of our stage?” Elsewhere, Juliet physically rails against Time, the grim reminder of the fleeting quality of romantic love.
With an equally bold stroke, director Tsikurishvili has done away with the clans of feuding Montagues and Capulets cluttering the stage. Instead, he augments the lean ensemble, which could not in any case deliver the pageantry of old Verona, with a stage of shifting mechanical devices. Here, the deadening aspect of industrialized society itself pressures and destroys any quality of life and love.
Choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili builds on this radical theatrical concept by initially reducing the ensemble’s physical vocabulary to mechanical arm movements like hands of a clock. Later, twirling umbrella-size gears to mask their faces, the actors become faceless automatons, that threaten to mow down the lovers.
The story is familiar. Romeo and Juliet meet at a party hosted by her parents and which Romeo and buddy Mercutio have crashed. The two fall in love, but the families are enemies, and the Capulets have other designs for their daughter. Wed in secret, the couple’s joy is short-lived, as a teenage skirmish turns deadly. Romeo is banished after pal Mercutio is murdered and he himself has killed Juliet’s cousin Tyablt. The lovers are reunited only in death in a double suicide.
Alex Mills and Natalie Berk are wonderful as the young lovers. Unhampered by the iambic pentameter verse, these two performers give their all to explore the physical aspects of falling in love. Alex Mills brings a fresh, buoyant dewiness to the play and rises to company leading man status in this role. His physical dexterity and, in particular, his extraordinary rib-chest elasticity have never been so well featured. Berk conveys both the tremulous virginal quality and the voluptuous yearnings of a young woman opening to her own sexuality.
The “palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss”” line of Shakespeare’s original is given ample realization. Mills and Berk discover love’s awakening in the delight of skin, a hand dance like the kissing of butterflies. It is as moving as it is beautiful. They kiss and part and kiss again like moths attracted to a fire that the audience knows will consume them. The wedding night is achieved in silhouette, backlit behind a great white sheet, in a scene both erotic and sacred.
Friar Lawrence is played brilliantly by Irakli Kavsadze, who becomes a central figure in this stripped down version of the play. His performance reminded me what a delight it is to follow treasured acting members of a company and see the kind of physical transformation a great actor is capable of, first witnessing his bull-like strength as Macbeth and now his slightly arthritic, cerebral Friar. He portrays both an impish humor and dignity as he cuffs the impetuous Romeo when the boy tries to dabble in the Friar’s herbal tinctures and later sternly separates the two lovers to restrain their ardor at the altar. Most artfully, through just his eyes and a considering closing of his lips, he enables the audience to follow his every thought, searching for a way to help the distraught Juliet reunite with Romeo.
The other stand-out performer in this cast is Philip Fletcher. Mercutio is a great character but one that is usually borne aloft through Shakespeare’s imaginative verse. How to translate that into an appropriate physicality was the challenge. Fletcher chooses to make Mercutio a reckless, long-limbed ape of a teenager, playing an ambiguous, out-there sexuality. At one point, he uses the classic mime exercise of two people kissing, using his own body seen from behind and his hands to caress his back, to tease the love-struck Romeo. Then he rubs up against Romeo but laughs it away when Romeo thrusts him off. All roughish boy stuff, right?
Mercutio and Romeo burst in on the Capulets and are thrust into a dangerous swirl of a dance. Fletcher is outstanding, later in the fight scene, as is Ryan Sellars as the dark, menacing Tybalt. Sellers turns lethal, and the goof-off Mercutio doesn’t even get how the stakes have turned. His subsequent death is horrific to watch.
Synetic Theater is known for the highly polished, synchronized work of its very accomplished ensemble. In this performance, the members had not got quite the groove to make the indelible impression that audiences have come to extol. Part of the problem lay in the choreography of the party scene. I have always found Irina Tsikurishvili’s choreography impeccable in taste and style, even when aping popular forms. But in this one scene, she starts the group out in a dangerous charge which then devolves into something whose moves were taken from TV’s Dancing-with-the-Stars. Was this done to gain the popular young vote? I found almost laughable the unnecessary splits, lifts and drags (dragging female partners across the floor on the ball of one foot.)
Much more inventive was the fight choreography between the boys and Irina Tsikurishvili’s Nurse in the famous piazza scene where in this production, she moves from a buffooned victim into a dominatrix. She and Fletcher play well off each other in dazzling physical moves. And what an original take on a character usually played as a dumpy old woman. Tsikurishvili once again has redefined a classic woman’s role on stage.
Collaborating composer and Sound Designer Konstantine Lortkipanidze (assisted by Irakli Kavsadze) has created a compelling score for the production, including percussive sounds of clocks and gongs to underline the inexorable rush and the all too brief, heartbreaking moments these lovers have together. By placing Lortkipanidze high above the action but nonetheless on stage, he assumes the role of a grand, godlike DJ, remixing and sampling sounds to the gyrating figures below. Playing the music live makes the music even more interactive and therefore effective. Like a cruel god, his ticking bomb score does not care if love were smashed to smithereens.
The end is jarring but powerful. Synetic’s production amputates the restoration of civility and moral warning at the end of Shakespeare’s play and ends instead with the death of the two young lovers. I was reminded of Yuri Lyubimov’s famous Hamlet from the 1970’s with Russian actor, protest singer Vladimir Vysotsky in the lead. I remember Lyubimov saying, following the show, “In Russia there is no knight going to come in on a white horse to restore all. The tragedy of our Russian Hamlet is that Hamlet knows he will be struck down and stands up anyway.”
At the end of this show I felt the full weight of the tragedy and yet also the hope these young lovers upheld in their fight against Time. The luminous performances of Mills and Berk serve as a torch, reminding us to choose love in the face of all. It’s a chilling but thrilling production.
Romeo and Juliet runs thru Dec 23, 2011 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St, Arlington, VA.
Romeo and Juliet
Based on the play by William Shakespeare
Adapted by Paata Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger
Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili
Produced by Synetic Theater
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes without intermission