Home of the Soldier

The always hyperkinetic Synetic Theater company is in action again at its home base in Crystal City.  This time, instead of funneling classic theater works through their uniquely visual, dance-centric system, they’ve chosen to unveil an original work entitled Home of the Soldier.

A creation of company chief Paata Tsikurishvili and fight director Ben Cunis, Synetic’s latest offering is a riveting, visceral, violently impressionistic account of a prototypical young soldier whose battlefield journey masks a far more personal pursuit.

Photo: Johnny Shryock Photography

Home of the Soldier blends dance, tumbling, gymnastics, martial arts into a nearly seamless blend of rapidly unfolding impressions that, collectively, create a compelling narrative about how at least one young soldier is drawn into the military to confront both cosmic and personal demons.

While this drama’s story unfolds from the hero’s inner perspective, the audience is invited to draw its own conclusions. The first clue: none of the play’s characters has a recognizable name. The lead character is “Son.” The mysterious second lead is “Prisoner.” Son’s best pal is “Kid.” The play’s villainess and chief antagonist is “Native Mother,” a cold-hearted terrorist—or fierce nationalist avenger, depending on your point of view.

The play draws upon several recognizable and primarily American sources for its ominous atmospherics, including the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. An added hat tip to the film “Saving Private Ryan” provides structure to the metaphorical story, and Paata Tsikurishvili’s own experiences living in Soviet-era Georgia certainly provide some perspective.

Dialogue in Home is minimal, gut-level, and liberally laced with profanities as it often is in the heat of battle. Penned by Ben Cunis and based on extensive discussions he conducted with military veterans, this is crude but realistic stuff, the kind of apocalyptic repartee that soldier-gladiator-warriors indulge in before engaging in another corpse-strewn day that could also be their last one on earth.

Dallas Tolentino as Strikes and Vato Tsikurishvili as Son. (Photo: Johnny Shryock Photography)

Home’s story line follows the career of Son (Vato Tsikurishvili), a video-gaming slacker who suddenly, and seemingly without much motivation, decides to enlist in the military and join his country’s current war effort. The action takes him through boot camp, military transport, and his first confrontation with real battle during which he’s accompanied by his friend Kid (Zana Gankhuyag) who’s tagged along from recruitment to war.

Both they and the company they join are battling an elusive foe, reminiscent of both the Vietcong and the Taliban. Like both, Home’s enemy forces are masters of guerilla war, right along with their ability to sow uncertainty. (“Is that little kid coming over here to blow me up?)

Battle scenes in Home are violent and compelling, largely due to the brilliant deployment of stacks of sandbags that constitute the bulk of Daniel Piha’s surprisingly effective minimalist stage design and Andrew F. Griffin’s crackling, smoky lighting effects.

The violence is fast and thick. But interspersed with battle scenes are a series of grainy, black and white videos that slowly provide the roughly parallel background stories of both Son and Native Mother (Jodi Niehoff)  that help bring coherence to an otherwise freewheeling battlefield chaos, particularly when we discover who Native Mother’s chief Prisoner (Irakli Kavsadze) really is.

It’s tough to recreate here the atmosphere of this production, save that it’s intense, violent, high energy, prototypical, yet personal, something that’s emphasized, with surprising effectiveness, by the play’s athletic cast.

As Son, Vato Tsikurisvili is sensational, the very personification of a crazed, honest, loyal, mission-oriented young warrior. As his sidekick, Kid, Zana Gankhuyag is more easygoing, less intense, and ultimately, tragically vulnerable. Joseph Carlson’s Sarge is, well, the kind of Sarge you’d hope to be working with, crusty, battle-scarred, no nonsense, yet astonishingly capable as serving as a kind of den mom to his energetic but still growing-up young warriors.

On the other side, Jodi Niehoff’s Native Mother is cold, ruthless, and apparently emotionless, although later on we discover how she’s come to be this way. In another fine character portrayal, Irakli Kavsadze’s Prisoner is stalwart, loyal to his company, broken down by his experiences while remaining unbroken in spirit.

Matthew Ward as Jackal, Vato Tsikurishvili as Son, Zana Gankhuyag as Kid, Austin Johnson as Rev, Victoria Bertocci as Fixer, and Jessica Thorne as Sauce. (Photo: Johnny Shryock Photography)

Home’s supporting cast, while playing a variety of characters, plays them well and convincingly, rounding out this wartime drama, particularly Dallas Tolentino whose character “Strikes” proves instrumental in drawing the drama’s puzzle pieces together.

Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s original, recorded soundtrack hypes the action and adds realism to each battle scene. And Irina Tsikurishvili’s impossibly athletic choreography gives this production a near-cinematic sweep.

Synetic’s Home of the Soldier is yet another powerful effort by an amazing theater company whose compelling concept has yet to find competition in DC’s increasingly diverse theater scene. It’s a fitting and thoughtful way to launch a summer during which many in our nation’s capital will continue to debate war, justice, national integrity, freedom, and honor.

Home of the Soldier runs thru July 1, 2012 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St, Arlington, VA.

Home of the Soldier.

Created by Paata Tsikurishvili and Ben Cunis. Dialogue by Ben Cunis.
Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili
Choreography by Irina Tsikurishvili
Original Music by Konstantine Lortkipanidze
Produced by Synetic Theater
Reviewed by Terry Ponick

Recommended.

Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission.
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