Why Shakespeare without words? And can it be done well? People are still asking that. But Synetic Theater, now in its tenth season, with no less than seven of its signature wordless Shakespeare plays now under its belt, is presenting three of its past productions in what the company is calling The Silent Shakespeare Theatre Festival. Synetic is here to answer that second question by theatrical means with a resounding “yes!”
Synetic’s Macbeth, which opens the festival for a three-week run, was first seen in Washington in 2008. The production garnered no less than 11 Helen Hayes nominations, walking off with 5 awards including Outstanding Director (Paata Tsikurishvili), Outstanding Choreographer (Irina Tsikurishvili) and Outstanding Resident Play.
Why does Synetic’s style at its best work so well when illuminating tales from Shakespeare? One reason is this ensemble’s dedication to process and company training. I would argue that you rarely achieve the kind of emotional underpinnings of Shakespeare’s psychology within the confines of most American theaters, where, for economic reasons, actors are brought in as hired guns, coming together with different training and processes, and scramble to pull the whole thing off in three to four weeks. Synetic, with its roots in “experimental theatre” and the subsidized ensembles of Eastern Europe, can take the time to compress a five-act Shakespearean drama and then fine tune physical depictions of central motifs they uncover in a play.
Macbeth is a good choice for the company to make its case for a wordless examination. Most people are familiar with the play, even if only assigned the text in a high school classroom. A general returns home from battle having had an eerie encounter with three witches on the heath who drop into his brain a prophesy of kingship. His wife urges him to take action to grab the promised crown. There, stoked by growing ambition, these two partners in greatness begin a descent into evil and madness, racking up murdered bodies as they go.
If the plot, full of action and strong visual images, make wordless Shakespeare possible, the central characters in the drama are larger than life and indeed live beyond the confines of the stories they inhabit. We, as audience members, can look at power and ambition through the archetypes of Lord and Lady Macbeth in startling and revelatory ways by turning the sound off (temporarily at any rate) and meditating on the facets illuminated in what might be described as a Synetic pictorial gem-cutting.
Irina returns as Lady Macbeth in this production. At one moment she dances an elegant tango with her husband over the crown. At another, she settles onto a throne made of human bodies like a satisfied cat on its favorite chair. She reveals another side of her acting-moving prowess in Lady Macbeth’s mad scene as she explores psychological rawness through physical means. No reported death in this production, here she is dragged down to hell by long red swathes of fabric tied to her wrists, rivers of blood of her own making. In all these movement styles, she brings expressiveness and a definitiveness of craft. Whenever Irina enters the stage, she grabs one’s attention as if pushing the air forward with her confidence and drive, and never more so than here, as a partner to Macbeth’s ambition.
One of my favorite moments in the play is when Lady M and her husband reunite after he returns from battle. Irakli Kavadze as Macbeth and his wife are “chilling,” sitting as if around a coffee table, only it’s the large black globe and propped on it is a crown decorated as a diadem of bullets. Irina stretches out her foot to tip the ball just a little his way. He tips its back, and so it goes. The tension builds as he strokes then snatches at the crown, and they begin a tug of war between them. This little game reveals the way ambition can start, just a little tease that grows monstrous and all consuming.
Director Paata Tsikurishvili often creates such scenes, not taken directly from the work but introduced to illumine the spine of the play. This one stands out among his most brilliant theatrical metaphors.
Irakli Kavsadze, a founding member of Synetic, was last seen as King Lear in the spring where he played a feeble old clown of a king. In this production, he bursts onto the stage like a raging bull and plows through the battlefield like a tank, mowing down the little soldier boys around him. Never does Kavsadze play the weak, “milk of human kindness” victim of his wife’s machinations. He vaults pretty damn quickly, an equal partner to ruthless ambition. His brilliant Macbeth is a monster. Only when he comes up at the end against Ben Cunis as Macduff can we see that he has met his match in physical prowess and character strength.
Last year, Cunis romped through a Celtic watery world as King Arthur and now he returns as Macduff, ripped as any Hollywood action hero. Their final fight explodes all over the stage. For audiences who like action movies, this scene excels as exciting entertainment. These two seasoned actors represent the best this company produces, and it’s a pleasure to watch them work together. A special mention should also go to Philip Fletcher, who won Best Supporting Actor for his role in 2008. He portrays evil well and never more compellingly as the sinuous, androgynous First Witch.
Synetic Theater has pretty much had a stronghold on the Helen Hayes Outstanding Ensemble Award for several years running. Opening night, the ensemble hadn’t quite worked the precision into its bones that the company has demonstrated in other productions. Particularly tricky was the choreography of the soldiers done in half-time tempo. (It made me admire the drilling of skill sets all the more.)
However, the company’s interpretation of the banquet scene is a quite marvelous invention and demonstrates once again why wordless theatre can capture something standard Shakespeare productions can’t quite duplicate. The ensemble enters, masked and shuffling like mechanical toys, their antics both refreshingly comic and chilling. As Macbeth starts to go off the deep end in his visions and rage, the actors begin to act like frightened rodents, peeking up over the table with little noses and eyes twitching, scuttling over the top of the table in chaos, and finally like rats abandoning the clearly sinking ship.
Macbeth is the shortest of Shakespeare plays, and its terseness of language has always seemed to drive the play forward in a remarkably fresh and powerful way. The director has used this brevity to his advantage and stripped the play down even further so the play mostly charges full throttle, accentuated by the thundering electronic soundscape of Konstantine Lortkipanidze.
In this dramatic plunge forward, the few quiet moments hold some of the evening’s most powerful images. Macduff’s heart-wrenching scene on learning about his entire family’s massacre is played with restrained minimalism, eyes and body frozen in pain and horror, the victims standing behind him as ghosts. Tsikurishvili even found a way of getting around the awkward challenge in Shakespeare’s play of Lady Macbeth, who, to my mind, has always seemed to have been “ripped untimely” from the drama. This Lady Macbeth returns from beyond the grave beside her husband to blow out life’s too brief candle.
The set by resident set and costume designer Anastasia R Rimes is most serviceable for the touring the company plans to do. A series of welded metal plates creates a back wall that looms like the hull of a great ship whose center has been bombed out and exposed. Chains lie hanging across the stage wall as if ready to haul off a great carcass. It’s a militaristic world of dualities, black and white, good and evil. This is emphasized in the costumes’ color schemes. Good King Duncan wears white, while the black uniforms of Macbeth’s soldiers refer to fascistic regimes.
In this darkest of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, inky darkness is the real backdrop of this production. One of the now seemingly obligatory Synetic techniques, such as what I’ll call “flashlight dancing,” in this show successfully dramatizes a world of fear, of para-military ambushing, and of fragile lights in the world getting prematurely snuffed out.
Against this, the blood red touches remind us of the human cost of religious and military darkness.
This is a Macbeth that stunned audiences when it first burst upon the scene. It remains a powerful tale of runaway ambition and the corruption of power. Take heed, Washington.
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili
Produced by Synetic Theater
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission