Synetic Theater’s silent King Lear is one of the most hauntingly beautiful things I’ve ever seen—and that’s saying something since clowns normally give me the creeps.
Director Paata Tsikurushvili sets Shakespeare’s tragedy in an absurdist landscape of European clowns and acrobats that recalls Federico Fellini films with a dash of the grotesqueries of American movie director Tim Burton. The result is visual poetry, a melancholy sonnet to madness and abuses of power.
King Lear (Irakli Kavsadze) has been reborn as a comic figure, which heightens the character’s precarious mental state but does not say much about his being a high-handed ruler on a capricious power trip. While Mr. Kavsadze’s Lear is compelling and blessed with physical ingenuity, you do not grow in compassion for the character since his foolishness seems established from the get-go. You don’t gain sympathy for Lear, aside from the fact he is constantly trailed by a mime—the Fool (Mirenka Cechova), a classical French white-faced Pierrot costumed in a white tunic and flowy pants.
That’s not the only change in Lear. The steadfast daughter Cordelia has been transformed into Cordelio (Chris Dinolfo), a gay man with a secret lover. His craven sisters Regan (Irina Tsikurushvili) and Goneril (Ira Koval) discover his homosexuality and use it as a weapon to turn his father against him. Banished while his sisters grapple over control of Lear’s land, Cordelio eventually returns to save his father and try to salvage the kingdom from the grips of Glouscester’s (Hector Reynoso) evil son Edmund (Philip Fletcher)—a real piece of work who sleeps with both Regan and Goneril and connives to have his brother Edgar (Ben Cunis) also expelled from the realm.
Mr. Dinolfo gives a poised, compassionate performance as Cordelio, but you wonder about the decision to turn the character into a bullied homosexual. There is plenty of drama inherent in Shakespeare’s original Cordelia, so why turn her into a crestfallen gay man, especially when Synetic’s adaptation does little to develop or deepen the character.
Two other minor quibbles—the fight scenes, although dynamically staged by Mr. Cunis, are overused and become confusing and repetitive, and the crooked red daggers the characters brandish make it look like they are stabbing each other with red chili peppers—ultimately do not detract from the sheer gorgeousness of this production.
For Lear, Mr. Tsikurushvili uses a sandy playground instead of the watery set seen in Synetic’s King Arthur. The sand is used to great effect, with all sorts of chimerical objects buried in the dunes, as well as having you gasp at how nimbly the actors move—and execute Ms. Tsikurushvili’s intricate choreography—in a medium most human beings merely thrash though.
Tsikurushvili’s choreography ranges from club-style dances to chart the frenzied slide into decadence by Regan and Goneril to supple, slow-motion movement that makes the characters seem like ghosts exquisitely roused to animation. So many images are indelible—a figure of Death (Renata Loman) who gracefully beckons the characters to join her in the afterworld; the final scene showing the Fool delicately walking from person to person, tying colorful balloons around their necks like nooses; and Lear weaving a tattered cloak around his children to show the division of his kingdom.
The comic elements often work, especially with Regan and Goneril, two painted kewpie dolls whose cheerful visages conceal black, greedy hearts. Ms. Tsikurushvili does not often get to show her lighter side and her Regan bristles with hip-thrusting attitude and a ruthless competitive nature. Her edgy street style contrasts marvelously with the slinky vibe exuded by Miss Koval’s Goneril, whose big-eyed makeup is truly disturbing. Ben Cunis skillfully treads between the humorous and the heroic in his portrayal of the good son Edgar, who disguises himself as a disheveled beggar after his brother tosses him out.
All of the elements in Synetic’s King Lear may not mesh flawlessly, but the imagery and the artistry of the company linger in your mind with cinematic intensity.
Synetic Theater’s production of King Lear runs thru April 24, 2011 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St NW, Washington, DC.
based on the play by William Shakespeare
Adapted by Paata Tsikurushvili and Ben Cunis
choreography by Irina Tsikurushvili
Produced by Synetic Theater
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: Approximately 1 hour, 35 minutes with no intermission
- Gary Tischler . The Georgetowner
- David Hoffman . Fairfax Times
- Peter Marks . Washington Post
- Kate Wingfield . MetroWeekly
Jenn Larsen . WeLoveDC
Brett Abelman . DCist
Joe Adcock . ShowBizRadio
Barbara MacKay . Washington Examiner