A frothy new ‘Tempest’ bubbling to the surface


Philip Fletcher as Prospero in “The Tempest” at Synetic Theater. (Johnny Shryock/COURTESY SYNETIC THEATER)
February 28, 2013

Synetic Theater is up to its old tricks. Which, of course, is very good news.

It’s added a few new tricks, too, in its never-ending quest for acrobatic dazzle, with a wet-and-wild version of “The Tempest” — the ninth time the company has thumbed through Shakespeare’s plays to find one it can make sing without words.

This latest selection is dripping with invention. Washington has to be the only city in America at the moment in which actors on two different stages have to contemplate nose plugs. As in Arena Stage’s “Metamorphoses,” an exploration of the myths related by the Roman poet Ovid, Synetic’s “Tempest” is performed in a shallow pool, some of the contents of which inevitably end up on the cheeks and in the laps of patrons in the front rows. (Rain gear is lent to them.)

The Crystal City company used a water base before, in a 2010 adaptation of the legend of King Arthur. That was a pretty splashy event, but a watery landscape makes a lot more sense around the island where the exiled Prospero (Philip Fletcher) performs his magic than it did for Camelot. Here, director Paata Tsikurishvili, working with the marvelous designer Anastasia R. Simes, carves out a darkly ethereal world, setting the action in the ankle-deep waters of a shoreline underneath an imposing cliff. On the mosslike curtains that bisect the stage, Riki Kim’s projections shimmer, as if the water’s reflected light were dancing graphics on a screen saver.

Brandishing a scepter that beams like a lighthouse, the robed and bearded Prospero — given a wizardly, sinewy bearing by Fletcher — presides over a tiny kingdom and the enchanted creatures who inhabit it. They are principally the monster Caliban and the sprite Ariel, played by regulars Vato Tsikurishvili and Daniel Istrate in some of the most impressive work either has done. Simes puts them both in water-resistant body suits: Vato Tsikurishvili wears demonic red, Istrate glistening silver.

Scott Brown, playing Ferdinand, one of the retinue of noble usurpers the revenge-minded Prospero shipwrecks on the island, and Irina Kavsadze as Miranda, Prospero’s dewy daughter, create one of the dreamier romantic couples the director has assembled. His choreographer wife, Irina Tsikurishvili, devises for them a gorgeously balletic pas de deux, made all the more alluring — and difficult — by having them dance it in the pool.

But the tenor of this “Tempest” is set by the dull-witted, scarlet hulk and the mischievous metallic spirit: In other words, the evening is forcefully athletic and fun. Vato Tsikurishvili performs so many flips, handsprings and somersaults he might be recruited for World Wrestling Entertainment school. And Istrate, who embodied a sensual Satan in Synetic’s 2006 “Faust,” performs at his elfin best as Ariel. Looking like a cross between one of the Wicked Witch of the West’s flying monkeys and Chris Kattan in his “Saturday Night Live” guise of Mango, Istrate delivers a cheeky performance that borders deliciously on kitsch.

Paata Tsikurishvili, in concert once again with adapter Nathan Weinberger, hews fairly closely to Shakespeare. One exception is an origin-story prologue, complete with a combat sequence between Prospero and an evil spirit only alluded to in the text, Caliban’s mother, Sycorax (Victoria Bertocci). In addition, the gender of the sibling who took over Prospero’s realm and sent him into exile has been changed: Antonio becomes Antonia (Francesca Jandasek). (This is where wordlessness works against Paata: I was under the impression as I watched that Antonia was re-imagined as Miranda’s long-lost mother, not Prospero’s sister.)

The comic characters in Shakespeare’s so-called late romances are too obvious to be truly funny, so it’s hard to hold Synetic accountable when they seem that way in Crystal City, too. As inebriated Stephano, Irakli Kavsadze — so powerfully foolish as Synetic’s King Lear — employs the exaggerated facial expressions of a clown, but the scenes in which he and Emily Whitworth’s Trinculo corrupt the childlike Caliban go on too long. Reinforced by the comedy-cuing chords in Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s score, the gags feel a little stale.

Vivaciousness abounds, though, in the physical realm dominated by Fletcher, who has earned the leading-man spotlight that designer Andrew F. Griffin shines on him. The storm Prospero brews as the ship carrying his targets founders in the waves is just a mesmerizing display of weather on a stage; you forget you’re in the utilitarian confines of a characterless below-ground auditorium.

Then again, this is a Tsikurishvili hallmark: finding newly captivating ways of immersing you in make-believe.

The Tempest

by William Shakespeare. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; adaptation, Nathan Weinberger; fight choreography, Ben Cunis; sets and costumes, Anastasia R. Simes; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; original music, Konstantine Lortkipanidze; sound, Irakli Kavsadze; projections, Riki Kim. With Ryan Tumulty, Pasquale Guiducci, Katherine Frattini, Jace Casey. About 100 minutes. Through March 24 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.synetictheater.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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