Synetic Theater’s distinctive take on the Bard endures with the company’s Speak No More Silent Shakespeare Festival’s second offering: Othello.
Synetic stamps its signature on one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies, the story of the doomed Moor, Othello, stirred by deceit, consumed by obsession and finally propelled to murder the one he loves.
Synetic’s Othello luxuriates in the form of a dark and sexy nightmare: the protean narrative unfolds through the fertile language of the subconscious, where the psychological elements of the drama have been heightened and deepened, expressed through discordant sound, hallucinatory imagery and wordless suggestions of id and ego, exclaiming fear, lust and rage.
The set itself represents the tortured, fractured psyche of Othello, and/or his persecutor Iago, that unrivaled of villains. Its jagged shards bear down on the performers and the audience, emblematic of the sharp-edged tension slowly choking reason from the increasingly frenzied characters tumbling headlong into destruction.
Synetic’s husband and wife team, director Paata and choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili—in their quest to create the premier American physical theatre—have here staged exhilarating group combat, hothouse sexual trysts, arguments, fights, seductions, murder and most notably the fractal “coming apart” of Iago.
Just so no one misunderstands, but for Iago’s final death chortle, there is no speaking in this production. The story is propelled through pantomime, dance and music, dressed by lighting and embellished with video projections. These lurid-green overexposed images illuminate the obsessive fears gnawing away at Othello’s mind and is one of the more inventive and effective techniques used in sharpening the paranoiac chaos uncoiling within the characters.
The production begins with a concocted prologue to Shakespeare’s Othello, something I usually find distasteful, but one that actually makes sense in this case, while adding a great deal of spectacular action and even a couple of compelling plot points to the drama that we all know. What was the significance of that pure, white, handkerchief anyway, hmm?
Soon enough we’re back at the familiar beginning, with the favor of Venice fixedly bestowed on the outsider Othello. The hero swiftly marries Desdemona and promotes Cassio over Iago, initiating the merciless gears of the tragedy into motion.
Roger Payano and Salma Shaw return from Synetic’s Helen Hayes award-winning 2010 production to reprise their roles as Othello and Desdemona, respectively. Payano commands as Othello, from his admirable physique, integral to the demands of the show, to the anguish in his eyes when he believes his wife has been unfaithful. Shaw is fine and endearing as the ill-fated Desdemona, but this tale has always really been more about the relationship between Othello and his lieutenant, the “honest” Iago.
Although it’s Othello’s name on the marquee, it’s Iago’s machinations that drive the drama. While we’ve always seen that it’s Iago who manipulates all the other characters at will and snares them in an intricate net of lies, Synetic’s standout deviation from the conventional Othello is the trifurcated expression of Iago’s schizoid personality, burst forth after reaching a psychic point of no return.
Artful, serpentine, barely contained, three actors (Philip Fletcher-principally, Alex Mills and Irina Tsikurishvili) exhibit the hydra-headed Iago as his poisoned desires run amok. Fletcher plays the lead Iago as an emo-punk creep, cool on the outside, writhing within. After the split, the three Iagos conspire symbiotically, working all sides of the stage, stroking egos, seducing the wayward, upping the ante. Absent his superb soliloquies, Iago becomes the physical embodiment of the cancerous corruption eating away at the written character’s soul; Shakespeare rung through Freud.
Movement is where the Synetic ensemble truly radiates. Othello has been made explicit, restyled into an eccentric postmodern piece of performance art with actors leaping, ducking and swinging in acrobatic fight scenes, and employing a balletic mastery to episodes of lovemaking, duels and dances. The physical dynamism, which the show is never without, does not lessen the need for the actors to act; the performers skillfully convey the play’s emotional range through their faces as well.
The impressionism of the whole translates to the costuming as well. As popular as it is to re-imagine Shakespeare in this way—costumed in weird black, white and red new-wave getups reminiscent of Gropius’ right angles and fascist steampunk—the effect is rather silly and distracting. Synetic’s founders’ hailing from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia may excuse this quirk, but anyway, this element is a hallmark of Synetic’s productions and is not going away.
The tragedy unfolds against the backdrop of an original, industrial-electronica score by Konstantine Lortkipanidze that changes tempo and provides musical cues for the performers much like the orchestrations in silent film. Dissonance connotes madness, jaunty melodies score much-appreciated humor and dance scenes are accompanied by electronic folk music.
Othello is what one has come to expect from Synetic’s impressive team. The Tsikurishvilis’ adaptations break down the raw elements of Shakespeare’s work—the themes and the motivating drives—and transform that material into passionate torrents of emotional intensity.
The genius of Shakespeare’s romances and much of the enjoyment of experiencing them performed lies in the language, but despite the absence of it here—due to its absence in fact—some incredible creations emerge: the chase inherent in sexual conquest, Iago’s multifarious monstrosity unmasked and Othello’s incessant, self-generated visions of Desdemona’s betrayal made visible.
What Synetic does won’t be to everyone’s liking, but the inventiveness with which the company discovers a new way to express a classic and the physical prowess of its performers are worth taking the chance.
What Synetic does, it does very, very well.
Othello runs thru Nov. 6, 2011, at Synetic Theater at Crystal City, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, VA.
Details and tickets
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili
Choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili
Produced by Synetic Theater
Reviewed by Roy Maurer
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission