Remember Eisenstaedt’s iconic victory photo, “The Kiss”? Taken in 1945, a sailor in white cap kisses a girl in white, a nurse, as she bends over backwards like a hairpin. You see the image in a flash as staged by two actors in the midst of Synetic’s frenetic opening scene. It’s a brilliant bit because it places us in a celebratory era– post WWII.
In Synetic’s physical theater version of Much Ado About Nothing, inventively directed by Paata Tsikurishvili, we don’t have spoken asides, where the characters confide their real feelings to the audience. Nor do we need any words at all.
We are thrust into a celebratory era, the 1950s. At the rim of the proscenium, sailors in Navy uniforms don leather jackets with the lettering Syneticons on back. Warriors have become bikers, with greased back hair, in a street gang, hanging out. Tough guy casino owner, Uncle Leonato, played with genial flamboyance by Peter Pereyra, keeps a lid on his Las Vegas casino where dancers in ballerina skirts are jitterbugging, swing dancing and twisting. Kudos to those lively, scantily-clad chorus girls, costumed in designer Kendra Rai’s bizarre, black-feathery head gear.
Skip ahead a scene, and the bikers wheel in on real motor bikes, headlights shining, as if they were James Dean or Marlon Brando. It’s an invasion of gangland’s unruly side.
Irina Tsikurishvili, a nine-time Helen Hayes choreography award winner, has created ingenious dance routines, replete with understated sexuality, that push the envelope, and go light years further than any previous Synetic production. She breaks boundaries, veering on the edge of chaos. It’s as if she is trying to see how far she dare go with her well-trained dancers who she has execute acrobatics, cartwheels, pratfalls and well-timed slapstick comedy. Near a climactic point, the bikers pick up their bikes and twirl them like batons.
Adding to that mix, fight choreographer Ben Cunis has staged hallucinatory knife fights between nefarious Don Juan (Dallas Tolentino) and Claudio (Scott Brown) that feel bone-crushingly real. It’s a topsy-turvy, razzle-dazzle world where anything seems possible.
The choreographers also take the lead roles: Irina Tsikurishvili is radiant as Beatrice, and Ben Kunis delivers a magnetic performance as Benedick.
But this is not a empty-headed spectacle about nothing, a show-off circus simply meant to churn our stomachs.
All the action is organic and motivated, evolving from flesh-and-human, earthy characters. In the over-the-top “strip poker” scene, for example, Beatrice and Benedick are in a deadlock battle for dominance. Benedick is losing. At one point, stripped to his undershorts, he teeters on a bench used as a platform. We can assume Benedick is rebelling and trying to shock Beatrice with his bumps and grinds. But with an endearing glance, Beatrice turns away, tenderly holding Benedick’s discarded blue jeans. Then she stonewalls, masking her feelings, as the scene ends with the two bickering protagonists back to fist-a-cuffing each other. And the audience applauds. We get the idea. Beatrice is caught between love and loathing.
For the quick-paced scene changes, music composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze blends electronic guitar music with eerie sound effects that capture every significant mood. For example, honky-tonk saloon music accompanies the love-smitten coupling scenes between Hero, a cousin to Beatrice, and Claudio, effectively projecting innocence in a romantic relationship, as played by Emily Whitworth and Scott Brown. A hypnotic drum beat holds us spellbound for the scenes with nefarious Don John, who smokes reefer and shoots heroine in the lurid-green graffiti-walled underground, set in a receding alcove by designer Daniel Pinha. Don John, menacingly played by Dallas Tolentino, almost succeeds in deep-sixing the young lovers’ relationship, by convincing Claudio that Hero has been unfaithful..
The time period switch works without getting syrupy-sweet. It’s utterly charming the way they find each other. The two actors pantomime sharing a soda pop with straws together, riding a motorcycle together and sharing popcorn during a romantic flick in a movie theater. All very 1950ish.
Then there’s the totally delightful, bouncy, whistling theme music for the frenetic cops, headed by police chief Dogberry, (Vato Tsikurishvili, Zana Gankhuyag, and Pasquale Guiducci), who appear like clones of The Three Stooges in a jittery, riotous car chase scene. The well-calibrated team work between the actors almost veers out-of-control. But the actors manage these comic relief scenes skillfully. Vato Tsikurishvili, who has developed into an expressive actor and impressive acrobat, has an intentionally terrifying stunt fall from the balcony, exposing police chief Dogberry’s clumsy incompetence. Later Dogberry does an encore, this time completing a successful Douglas Fairbanks Jr. balcony leap to the stage below, as if possessed with the agility of the famous silent-screen film actor. It’s thrilling to watch and worthy of a cheer.
The poetic element that the Synetic company establish is that Beatrice and Benedick do not hate each other; they just love their freedom more. Beatrice, is haughty, the nightclub superstar, a femme fatale, gorgeously clad in a clinging, shimmering sequined turquoise-and-silver gown. (costumes by Kendra Rei.) Benedick asks for her autograph to get close to her.
In Synetic’s production, graffiti is used as a stage device. Both Beatrice and Benedick draw graffiti, big hearts on the walls to express their feelings of love. The stage left and left flats are painted with hearts, a graphic way of sharing the characters’ subconscious thoughts and feelings. Like a juvenile, Benedick scribbles Beatrice’s face with black crayoned graffiti, to express his frustration. Graffiti proves to be as effective a communication device as any spoken “aside.”
So how will their gossiping friends ever bring them together? That’s part of the suspense and fun.
To answer the former question of how the lovers get together, Paata Tsikurishvili, as the stage director, establishes the value of “notting,” the Elizabethan word for eavesdropping or spying, overhearing something not intended to be heard. [Footnote: Later “notting” was misspelled as “nothing,” in Shakespeare’s title, Much Ado About Nothing, either a deliberate or accidental misspelling.]
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Feb 11 – March 22
1800 S. Bell Street
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $75
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 866.811.4111
He mentions in the clarifying program notes that there’s “…the danger and fun of gossip.” overheard secrets not intended to be revealed. What this means is that in Elizabethan drama, eavesdropping often leads to tragic consequences. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, Polonius eavesdrops from behind a curtain and Hamlet accidentally stabs him to death for spying. But in Shakespeare’s Much Ado, just as in Synetic’s adaptation, eavesdropping or gossiping friends provide meddling that helps communication. Ultimately Beatrice and Benedick, the dueling duo, realize their deep love, stop fighting and end up together.
At one point, Benedick is left alone, like a sad-faced clown, with a cardboard replica of Beatrice center stage, all he’s got left, while a soulful Elvis Presley melody of “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” is piped in. It’s a wonderfully ironic moment.
Gradually, Synetic’s Much Ado About Nothing develops into a wild celebration of free expression, a tumultuous climactic full company rock and roll number to end the performance. Once again, the Synetic Theater Company proves that movement, mime and music are universal communicators. Free of language barriers, we identify viscerally, kinetically at a deeper level. Bravo, brava for a staging well worth experiencing.
Much Ado About Nothing based on the play by William Shakespeare . Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili . Choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili . Featuring Ben Cunis, Irina Tsikurishvili, Scott Brown, Emily Whitworth, Peter Pereyra, Dallas Tolentino, Philip Fletcher, Kathy Gordon, Vato Tsikurishvili, Zana Gankhuyag, Pasquale Guiducci, Tori Bertocci, Justin J. Bell, Janine Baumgardner, Sharisse Taylor and Eliza Smith . Sound Editor and Resident Composer: Konstantine Lortkipanidze . Produced by the Synetic Theater . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.