I have two surprises to report.
The first is that I liked Snyetic Theater’s production of Twelfth Night. I didn’t think I would, because it tells the story of Viola and Sebastian with movement and music, not with words, and I’m a language aficionado — so language-addled, in fact, that I wondered whether you could rightly call the show Twelfth Night — do you still have the play without the words?
Paata Tsikurishvili, Synetic’s Artistic Director, calls the production an adaptation of Twelfth Night, and he reminds the audience that the play’s full title is Twelfth Night, or What You Will. Those last four words do sound like license to adapt without regard for people who might quibble that we wouldn’t have that invitation if we didn’t have those words.
The other surprise is that this production, in which not one of Shakespeare’s words is uttered, helped me understand why Shakespeare’s work still dominates theatrical discourse, some four hundred years after his death. If you’re not convinced that it does, consider that you could probably see a dozen Shakespeare plays within a hundred miles of Washington in any given week, year round, in any year. Some companies do nothing but Shakespeare; others take pride in doing all of Shakespeare, even plays that aren’t much good, like Twelfth Night, which is a dumb play, but I’ve seen four productions of it in the past ten months.
At some point you have to wonder why. Not just why have I seen them, but why have they been there to see?
The critic Harold Bloom might say that it’s because Shakespeare taught us how to think about ourselves, and the great plays probably do that in some sense, but not Twelfth Night.
It’s the story of twins, Viola and Sebastian, who wash up on the shores of Ilirium after being shipwrecked. Each assumes that the other is lost. Viola dons her brother’s clothing, either because she’s cold, as this production suggests, or because she thinks she’ll have better chances in a strange world as a man, and she attaches herself to the house of Duke Orsino, who is in love with the noble Olivia, who rebuffs his advances because she’s in mourning after the death of her brother. Olivia soon falls in love with Viola, whom she believes to be man, and Viola falls for Orsino, who also believes that Viola is a man and thus outside the circle of his love’s potential. Olivia’s butler, Malvolio, is secretly in love with her, too, and the hangers-on in Olivia’s household use that secret love to humiliate Malvolio because he doesn’t like it when they drink. Then the love lines uncross, and the gender switch reverts, and the people that matter get married to each other.
None of which teaches any of us how to think about ourselves, I would assert, so what’s the enduring appeal? The show I saw Thursday at Synetic Theater helped me understand that plays like Twelfth Night get their power from burnishing the details that surround the main event but don’t comprise it — that is, they disrupt our thoughts about ourselves with pointless beauty. This show did that by replacing Shakespeare’s words with Irina Tsikurishvili’s choreography.
I first saw the correlation between words and motions while Alex Mills, who plays Sebastian, was dancing/tumbling/acrobating during a party on the ship before it sinks. ‘He moves as if he had more joints than ordinary people do,’ I thought. He moves as if his ligaments were chewing gum, as if he weren’t required to obey the laws of gravity.
The difference between the way he moves and the way ordinary people move is like the difference between the way Shakespeare uses words and the way the rest of us do.
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That correlation was even clearer when I watched Irina Tsikurishvili playing Viola: she moves with grace and precision that resemble nothing so much as Shakespeare’s graceful language. Her fingers float behind her arm is if they’re not yet finished fondling the thought her wrist and elbow just articulated.
Most of us can’t move that way, or use those words.
Most of us pay most of our attention to the words that tell the story. But the story doesn’t need those floating fingers, or those pursing lips, or the arching of Viola’s neck. Irakli Kavsadze’s astonishing capacity to make his belly and his face expand in contrapuntal bulges like the opposite ends of a water balloon is not required by the story. Nor is any of the six or seven 1920s’-style dance numbers that feature bodies flying past each other on trajectories without an inch to spare. Neither is Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s musical score, which would have held me rapt for 90 minutes by itself.
Nothing in the show’s finale, which continues and continues, layer after luscious layer, is required by the story either, and, in the end, that unrequired quality may be how this production manages to be a play by Shakespeare that does not use any of his words: by investing in the what-you-will. Exquisitely, with lavish care.
It’s a show that makes you want to live in pantomime.
Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Featuring Irina Tsikurishvili, Philip Fletcher, Irakli Kavsadze, Kathy Gordon, Ben Cunis, Alex Mills, Dallas Tolento, Irina Kavsadze, Hector Reynoso, Vato Tsikurishvili, Janina Baumgardner, Randy Snight, Zana Gankhuyang, and Rebecca Hausman. Music by Konstantine Lortkipanidze. Produced by Synetic Theater. Reviewed by Mark Dewey.