Infusing “Twelfth Night” with modern music and a certain carefree contemporary farcicality is hardly original: Folger Theatre accomplished something of the sort in director Aaron Posner’s 2003 version of the play, with a snazzy score by James Sugg. But no matter. The light-and-dark comedy fits snugly with Synetic’s style. It proves, in fact, to be the most successful marriage of slapstick and Shakespeare the company has ever undertaken.
“Twelfth Night” swings from romantic gibes to the comedy of cruelty, from daffy identify mixups to vicious taunting, a polarity of effect that has divided critics down the ages. In the words of the late Harvard professor Herschel Baker, accepting the play’s fanciful nature may mean thinking of it as “exempt from any common-sense appraisal.” This is pretty much the position staked out by Paata Tsikurishvili and adapter Nathan Weinberger as they present the schemes and jokes and flirtations as ingredients of a wacky movie of the silent era.
The idea illuminated on Synetic’s stage in Crystal City is that Feste the clown (played with exceptional skill by Ben Cunis) and his confederate Fabian (Vato Tsikurishvili) are filming a screwball flick about the shipwreck that washes up Viola (Irina Tsikurishvili) on the shores of Illyria and separates her from her twin brother, Sebastian (Alex Mills). In the elastic logic of “Twelfth Night,” Viola dresses as a man to earn a job in the court of Duke Orsino (Philip Fletcher), with whom she falls in love and on whose behalf she acts as wooing emissary to the grieving Olivia (Kathy Gordon), who, naturally, falls desperately in love with the disguised Viola.
Paata Tsikurishvili and Weinberger stretch logic here, too: At times, Fabian is seen filming the movie, and at other times, the movie seems to have been completed, because a screen is rolled to a downstage position and onto it is projected some of Shakespeare’s dialogue. This serves the practical needs of the device —Shakespeare without spoken words — more than it does the coherence of the plot’s framing concept.
Again: no matter. The director and his dependable creative team push the proceedings right up to the edge of chaos and then rescue themselves with inspired images and artful athleticism. (Chaos barely under control is not a bad way to think of “Twelfth Night.”) In thorough command, too, on this occasion is choreographer Irina, who locates in the shipwreck, in Olivia’s household, in a boxing match and a rousing finale, among other times and places, opportunities for exhilarating Charlestons and other steps, to the rags, jazz and swing written or popularized by Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and Benny Goodman.
Synetic’s house composer, Konstantine Lortkipanidze, has put together some useful underscoring as well. But the Tsikurishvilis and their cast appear to be freed in new ways by these aural flavors of American culture. Trained in cinema and pantomime in his native Republic of Georgia, Paata Tsikurishvili seems invigorated here by the chance to recall those influences: In her transformation from Viola to the disguise as Caesario, Irina Tsikurishvili dons the threads of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. And in a mirror trick expressing the broken connection between Viola and Sebastian, this “Twelfth Night” pays tribute to another great movie clown, Harpo Marx, who also got laughs without words.
As evidenced by the sensational all-male “Twelfth Night” on Broadway at the moment, featuring Mark Rylance’s priceless turn as Olivia, the play is as richly steeped in characters of varying comic temperaments as any ever written. Lacking dialogue, Synetic’s version cannot do full justice to them all; it’s impossible, for example, to revel in the dandified idiocies of Sir Andrew Aguecheek without language; although Dallas Tolentino is physically adept, his performance as foppish Sir Andrew, through no fault of his own, gets a little lost here.
Conversely, the exaggerated mannerisms of pantomime work splendidly for the mannishness with which the superb Irina invests her Viola, and Irakli Kavsadze has in the grandiosely unctuous Malvolio, his most rewarding role since his King Lear three years ago. Turning the malicious servant Maria into a coquettish maid out of French farce is a terrific notion, and a sterling showcase for Irina Kavsadze’s comedic skills. Fletcher’s magnetic Orsino, meanwhile, exudes matinee-idol élan (though ideally, the anachronistic jewelry piercing his flesh would not be so visible).
They’re all outfitted suavely in fringe and satin by costume designer Kendra Rai, on a set filled with back-lot flotsam by Phil Charlwood that smoothly rolls with the frenetic comedy. Collectively, this tumbling, pratfalling, high-kicking and seemingly inexhaustible cast does everything to lift an audience’s spirits except ply it with bubbly. Recalling that the play’s full title is “Twelfth Night, or, What You Will,” one is safe in saying that what you will be in Crystal City is happy.
based on the play by William Shakespeare, adapted by Nathan Weinberger. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili. Fight choreography, Ben Cunis; set, Phil Charlwood; lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Kendra Rai; original music, Konstantine Lortkipanidze; music direction, Irakli Kavsadze; sound, Thomas Sowers; video, Igor Dmitry. With Hector Reynoso, Janine Baumgartner, Randy Snight, Zana Gankhuyag, Rebecca Hausman. About one hour and 45 minutes. Tickets, $35 to $75. Through Feb. 16 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. Visit www.synetictheater.org or call