Synetic’s untamed Taming of the Shrew

When Synetic cooks up Shakespeare, know that under Paata Tsikurishvili’s fired-up direction, the team will tackle something bold and often delicious. However, is it any wonder that in Synetic’s repeated attempts to re-concoct the bard, placing the ingredients of each play in a new mold, there might prove one production that, like a soufflé, doesn’t quite rise or stay risen at its presentation?

Irina Tsikurishvili as Katherine, Ryan Sellers as Petruchio. (Photo: Johnny Shryock)

The Taming of the Shrew, which opened Sunday night at the Lansburgh Theatre, was, alas, just such an experiment that proved to be a somewhat toppled event.  The company jumped, shimmied, and shook to serve up some tasty morsels, but nothing had the substance one would hope for from this “iron chef” of theatre.

Since Synetic founding members arrived in Washington from their eastern European homeland of Georgia, the company has grown to become one of the dominating forces on the local cultural scene. Like many audience members, I have been won over time and again by Synetic Theater’s critical and popular triumphs, especially of its wordless Shakespeare productions, the sheer energy and dedication of this company on stage, and its passion to stay true to its ensemble mission and process. Synetic stands to pick up as many as 15 more Helen Hayes Awards later this month for their stunning production in 2011 of King Lear to add to their already robust list of 89 nominations to date that garnered a total of 21 awards.  So what happened here?

Could part of the problem be wtih the Bard’s play? Many people have told me they don’t remember the characters except the one in the title, the headstrong Kate, and her match, Petruchio, who stands up to her, and, if somewhat brutally, wins her hand and finally her heart. The Director chooses to push this idea further by creating a world of beautiful yet interchangeable faces and bodies, flying fast-paced through a world pulsing relentlessly to the music of composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze.

Tsikurishvili invents a prologue to open his play, showing Baptista and two daughters, Kate and Bianca, standing in the rain at their mother’s funeral. As they leave the gravesite immersed in their private loss, paparazzi flashbulbs pop, rudely intruding.  The sound catapults us into the garish world of red carpets and media blitz where the craziness never stops. The Baptista family members are scions of a fashion design house and cultural icons of Padualand, a metaphor for Hollywood. In case you don’t get it, Padualand flashes up on screen in the iconic Hollywood Hill lettering. From that point on, welcome to the freak show.

Vato Tsikurishvili as Hortensio, Irina Kavsadze as Bianca, and Scott Brown as Lucentio. (Photo: Johnny Shryock)

Hector Reynoso plays Baptista like an Italian don, wearing multiple rings and throwing his big body around to keep his media circus going. He’s a man used to buying his way through his problems. Irina Kavsadze plays Bianca, Kate’s sister, one part goody-two-shoes to two parts designing woman, but all daddy’s little girl. Barely clad in a skin-tight yellow dress, this young actress has a pair of legs that go on for miles and masses of beautiful curls. She could well be the next “it girl” in Hollywood. No wonder sister Kate seethes, bored at the vapidness of her life and enraged at the adoration her younger sister inspires.  She lashes out in almost every scene, physically attacking whoever comes into her view.

Petruchio (Ryan Sellers) is a conceptual artist down on his luck and his ideas. At his studio, he struggles to paint a nude model on plexiglass. Beside him, his assistant Grumio, (Alex Mills as always supremely skillfull in his physicality,) copies his efforts on an Etch A Sketch, the kind of socially topical reference the company does so well. It’s only when Baptista sends an offer he can’t refuse, does Petruchio jump on his motorbike and rev up to woo, wed, and get paid to do so.

Scene after scene drives home the shallowness of today’s world where the elite live lives of excess. Pop culture clips serve up plenty of tabloid connections. There’s a red carpet event, a fashion show extravaganza where women and men of the ensemble strut on in “fantasy” outfits. Think Victoria’s Secret meets Saturday afternoon wrestling, much of it staged by Chippendales Men’s Club. (There’s a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen.) Soon after, the actors throw themselves into a dance club number, an orgy of techno gyrations. In such scenes, the men especially seem to be having just a little too much fun being exhibitionists for their cronies.  If you like my body, and you think I’m sexy…

Truthfully, it all got a little old.

If the play doesn’t come to together in Synetic’s usual strongly cohesive fashion, it is not the fault of Irina Tsikurishvili, who stars as Katherine (Kate) and whose vigorous performance dominates the show’s ninety minutes. Like a Hollywood Angelina action figure (minus the boobs and lips job,) she outkicks, out-dances, and out- well never mind –  everyone on stage.  It’s as if in her singular fury, her character would pull down the whole world on stage.  Indeed, near the end of the show, Kate rips down a series of gray drapes covering floor to ceiling paintings by Petruchio only to discover they are supposed to be of her.  What? Wasn’t that the other (nude) model/muse? At that moment the production’s theme of stardom gets confused with their own “star” Kate/Irina. I was caught short with this self-referential blurring as if staring at actors staring at themselves in a mirror. Was this an extended joke, and was I peeping at them in their own mayhem of making art?

Viewing The Taming of the Shrew as a peepshow behind the scenes of Synetic’s workshop-in-process, I could find the flurry of actors’ assignments highly amusing.   There were lots of over-the-top silliness. Scott Brown, disguised as a tutor, cross dresses to slip into Bianca’s house. In a subterranean dance hall Vato Tsikurishvili as Hortensio, another of the suitors trying to escape Kate’s wrath, holds a handheld device high overhead. The actor gets the action just right, desperately trying to get cell phone coverage, perhaps to call 911.

The scene I most loved was the banquet scene where Irina tries to grab morsels of food, while her husband and his band of merry-makers bang their mugs in a rhythmic chorus and snatch the food away on thin pieces of suspended wire.  So carefully timed is this cruel game, and it is allowed to unfold so gradually and surely in its execution that it is stunning, hilarious and heartbreaking all at once as we watch Kate’s mounting desperation at the nightmare.

What we didn’t get on this show is the company’s uncanny ability to break open and reveal the humanity of Shakespeare’s characters at the play’s core. So pedal-to-the-metal was the pace of the show that even our Kate, abandoned in the desert by her husband, who roared off on his motorcycle, could not take time to bring us into her pain and pave the way for her transformation. Instead, she flails at shadowy birds on screen, a nod to Hitchcock’s film, and so far upstage it’s just another moment on this fast train.  Even in the scene where Kate and Petruchio have at each other in his studio in a huge paint fight, color becomes just another weapon and so dazzling that we lose sight of the relationship and what might make them fall in love.

Tsikurishvili bypasses Kate’s personal transformation into love altogether. Instead, we see the couple arrive back at her father’s house like the new Hollywood royalty, strutting forth in all their glittering wealth and bad-ass reputation while those around them gawk.  Director Tsikurishvili leaves us with the image of the cycle of stardom that governs the conversation in our society, but I am not sure what it has to do with Shakespeare’s play.

There were strong visual images, amusing cameos, and a lot of sweat equity on stage to build moments of “Syneticism.” But the major players of this company might consider a well-deserved sabbatical to get their juices going again.  We need you to keep on exposing us to your brand of corporal theatre in order to remind us how theatre can communicate even complex texts and ideas without words.

The Taming of the Shrew

Based on the play by William Shakespeare
Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili
Produced by Synetic Theater
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith

Recommended with reservations

Running Time:  90 minutes with no intermission


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