Synetic Theater’s hyperkinetic new production of Shakespeare’s Othello is like no Othello you’ve ever seen before. While it takes some liberties with one of the Bard’s most compelling tragedies, the company’s entirely wordless Othello remains weirdly in tune with the essence of the original play that inspired it.
Part dance, part mime, part hallucination, Synetic’s re-imagining substitutes motion for emotion in an often astonishing, always mesmerizing, and occasionally over-the-top pageant of balletic action and reaction. Visually, it’s a bit like crossing Pilobolus with the Flying Karamazov Brothers. Or maybe with the Cirque du Soleil.
In their adaptation of the play, Paata Tsikurishvili and collaborator Nathan Weinberger explore the inner workings of Othello’s brave but pathologically jealous spirit, leavening his inevitable downward spiral with dashes of unexpected comic relief. It’s all played out against a misty, abstract backdrop of jagged, geometric shapes and argumentative beams of light that define each scene or tableaux.
Choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili, Synetic’s Othello employs a seamless admixture of mime, ballet, and acrobatics to chart the protagonist’s initial triumphs and eventual downfall. It’s all played out against the backdrop of an original, heavily electronic score by Konstantine Lortkipanidze that weaves techno sensibilities into threads of Edgar Varèse, Ivesian tone clusters, and sinewy atonal dissonances.
Relying, as it does, on so much aural and visual magic, such an impressionistic production could quickly become precious were it not for the graceful athleticism of its player/dancers. But make no mistake. While the production at times seems like a strange, postmodern ballet, the players are actually actors whose facial and physical gestures add far more of an emotional impact to each scene than dance alone could provide.
The most original touch in this production is Synetic’s approach to Iago, certainly among the coldest of villains in all literature. He’s portrayed here by not one, not two, but three players. Id, ego, superego? Maybe there’s a better post-Freudian explanation. But each Iago—variously portrayed by Philip Fletcher, Irina Tsikurishvili, and Alex Mills, both together and individually—certainly emanate the various flavors of Iago’s diabolical and methodical approach to the cold dish of revenge.
Iago initially becomes three when one of them observes himself in an Alice in Wonderland mirror. It’s hard to tell whether this tripartite Iago is born of Othello’s jealousy and paranoia or whether the villain himself is experiencing multiple personality disorder. But the three together impart a genuine and highly original drive to this production than might otherwise be the case.
Multiple Iago also provides endless opportunities for variations on the theme, ranging from brilliantly choreographed tumbling scenes to now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t routines reminiscent of the Three Stooges or vintage Warner Brothers cartoons.
Of course, Iago isn’t the entire show, just its motivational core. The concept would never work without a superb Othello. And in Roger Payano, they certainly found him. Tall, willowy, yet athletic, Payano radiates nobility and strength along with the graceful aggression of a panther. Attaining leadership after coming from nowhere, he’s certainly the kind of figure to excite resentment amongst the privileged officers and courtiers of the Duke of Venice—particularly after he’s instrumental in saving the Italians from the marauding Turkish Army.
Payano’s prowess also conquers the heart of the admiring Desdemona, played with endearing sincerity by Salma Shaw. The romantic interplay between Payano and Shaw is essential to this production’s verismilitude, and their chemistry together is as irresistible for the audience as it is infuriating to all three Iagos.
The remaining principles, each in his or her way, make significant contributions to the effectiveness of this production, including Scott Brown’s boyish, impulsive, yet loyal Cassio; Irina Koval’s conflicted but ultimately generous-spirited Emilia; Vato Tsikurishvili’s foolhardy Roderigo; and Peter Pereyra’s perplexed Duke.
All are surrounded by a “chorus” of dancer/players who tumble in and out of the action in a variety of roles ranging from slavemasters to soldiers to court hangers-on with great effectiveness, providing a constant source of new energy for the proceedings onstage.
In addition to the direction, the choreography, and the music, the originality of this production is also highly dependant on its visual impression, given, of course, that no words are spoken throughout. In addition to the production’s spare but effective sets, designer Anastasia Rurikov Simes was also responsible for the brilliantly-colored, evocative costuming that adds to its pageantry and sense of nobility.
An additional plus is the spare but effective use of black and white film projections to create the images of unfaithfulness that dance, with increasing frequency in Othello’s mind. They play back ceaselessly, resembling crude porno from a bygone era, yet they are suggestive rather than explicit which would have detracted from the elegance of the production.
The only element of this production that could still use a bit of fine tuning is its “sound track.” Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s recorded music is well-integrated into the production. But at times, the sound level might work better if it were cranked down just a notch. Spending most of my time, as I do, in an environment of purely acoustic music, I found the occasional percussive blast a bit painful, although lifelong rock aficionados might not notice this at all.
Synetic Theater’s “silent” Othello is well worth the price of admission, even if you’re normally the kind of theatergoer who appreciates his or her Shakespeare shaken, not stirred. Unlike so many drab, Euro-gray Shakespeare “updates” these days, this one provides a refreshingly new and visually startling approach that keys in on the visceral emotions of the original. It’s directed, choreographed, and performed by a company whose unique approach to drama adds considerably to DC’s ever-growing reputation as a premiere theater city.
Adapted by Paata Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger, based on Shakespeare’s Othello
Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili
Music and Music Direction by Konstantine Lortkipanidze
Choreographyby Irina Tsikurishvili
Produced by Synetic Theater
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Othello runs thru July 3, 2010 in the Family Theater at the Kennedy Center.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.