Host and Guest
by Roland L. Reed, from a poem by Vazha Pshavela
produced by Synetic Theater
directed by Paata Tsikurishvili
reviewed by Tim Treanor
In the shadow of the Russian invasion of Georgia, in the shadow of 9-11, in the shadow of all the miseries we do to each other in the name of tribalism, Synetic Theater once again presents us with the story of Host and Guest. It is the hour before dawn, and Joqola (Dan Istrate) is hunting for his family’s meal in a forest (the ensemble) in the Caucasus. Game is difficult; the damn fog – or is it the gunsmoke from the ceaseless war between the Muslim Kisti and the Christian Khevsuri – smothers even the wan moonlight. Suddenly a deer (Katie Maguire) appears; Joqola levels his rifle and shoots. But as he prepares to dress his kill, he feels another presence: the Khevsuri warrior Zviadauri (Ben Cunis) is pointing his rifle at Joqola. Joqola turns around: he has found a guest, to whom he owes the hospitality of his home.
In our culture, avoiding guests is an art form, and such an outsized concept of hospitality must seem difficult to comprehend – especially when the village elder (Irakli Kavsadze) reveals that Zviadauri has killed hundreds of Kisti, including Joqola’s brother, during their tribal battles. Worse, the whole community wants Zviadauri dead. But the three great Western religions spring from the desert, where to deny hospitality may be to condemn a stranger to death, and in this spirit Joqola obstinately claims the protection of his home in the righteous face of his community. Pshavela’s story thus bears a startling resemblance to the account, in Genesis 18 and Chapter 11 of the Holy Prophet, of the visit Abraham, or Ibriham, had from the three strangers who would eventually announce that his wife was gravid with child.
This story does not end as well. The community prevails over Joqola, and torture, murder and war ensue. Because Joqola’s wife (Irina Tsikurishvili) mourns the dead Zviadauri – an act as remarkable as an American praying for the soul of Mohammed Atta – she is ostracized from the living Kisti, and haunted by the dead ones. A night which begins with the slaughter of a stranger ends with everyone a stranger to each other.
Synetic has performed this piece before, but if you think you’ve seen it you’re not taking into account the enormous growth this company has experienced in the last four years. Synetic’s incredible movement and intense theatricality is as gorgeous as ever – you will not see anything like the gravity-defying fight scene outside Cirque du Soleil – but the vocal style of this movement-based company is better than it has been in anything I’ve seen them do before. Ben Cunis and Dan Istrate, in the two principal roles, show that they are top-flight actors even when they are sitting down. (Istrate is much in demand for staged readings). Supporting actors, especially Julia Proctor as Zviadauri’s widow and Armand Sindoni, who leads the Kisti after the elder dies, show power and grace independent of their movement. Longstanding company members exhibit new command over text: Kavsadze, for example, shows complete comfort with the verbal portion of his role, to go along with his compelling stage presence and preternaturally decisive movements. Watching Kavsadze move on stage gives me an idea of what NFL quarterbacks might have felt when Lawrence Taylor was still playing. And – I hardly need to say this – Irina Tsikurisvili continues to be a stone miracle.
Having said that, I must point out that this is a minimalist production, and Reed’s dialogue gives us little more than the story’s basic signposts. The set is somber and frequently dimly lit; characters, beyond Joqola and Zviadauri, are dressed in black, and Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s eclectic music lacks its customary edge. The production provides a synopsis with the program and I recommend you read it before watching the show; some of the more subtle developments are not otherwise entirely clear. Better yet, read Pshavela’s wonderful poem.
Compassion, the forgiveness of sins….these are easy things compared to opening our homes to our enemies. In this, the season of woe (as all seasons have become the season of woe) this Georgian company has given us a reason to consider all three.
Running Time: 1:15 (no intermission)
When: Thursdays through Sundays until November 9. Through November 1, all Sunday shows are at 3 and all other shows are at 8. Starting November 2, all Sunday shows are at 2 and all other shows are at 7.
Where: Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 Kent, Arlington VA.
Tickets: $35-$40 available on the website.
Shortly after the Russian occupation of Georgia, Director Paata Tsikurishvili talked with Joel Markowitz about why he decided to re-create Host and Guest. The conversation includes music tracks from the program. Listen here.