Peter Marks reviews Synetic Theater’s ‘King Lear’

In “King Lear,” it seems, everyone’s a fool — at least when it is distilled through Paata Tsikurishvili’s singular sensibility. Synetic Theater’s artistic director, who with “King Lear” continues his series of wordless productions of Shakespeare, looks upon the tragedy’s toll of loss heaped on loss as a stormy circus, a grim carnival whose ringmaster is a lithe, beckoning incarnation of Death.

So Lear and his children, allies, advisers and enemies all wear permutations of the kingdom’s native costume: clown suits. Not the ha-ha variety, of course. With faces varnished a ghoulish white and eyes caked in black and red makeup, they form a cortege of gargoyles, dancing to the grotesque music of ruin and carnage.

The spectral beauty of Tsikurishvili’s “Lear” is unlike any of his previous attempts at staging Shakespeare’s plays without any of Shakespeare’s dialogue. Visually and choreographically, the piece, presented in the Lansburgh Theatre, coheres even more seamlessly than in past efforts, and the 95-minute play flows with an assurance of tone and style that satisfyingly builds on and refines the troupe’s one-of-a-kind aesthetic.

In previous installments of this signature Synetic genre, a performance or two betokened the emergence of one or another member of this aggressively athletic ensemble: Alex Mills’s rubbery Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” comes to mind, as does Ben Cunis’s debut as a ninja Macduff in Synetic’s earlier “Macbeth.” Here, however, although Irakli Kavsadze’s sad hobo-king makes for a monarch you can feel for, the production itself is the star. And the 15-member cast meshes in technique and affect in ways that fully invigorate the concept.

Granted, the metaphor is not gentle. “Lear” as a killing field pocked with bombed-out modern buildings out of a scene from “The Hurt Locker” feels at times like a mallet delivering mighty blows to a thumbtack. Still, Tsikurishvili, with the indispensable assistance of his choreographer wife, Irina, wants us to consider that “Lear” is not so subtle, either. There is indeed a direct descent into hell in “Lear”: no shilly-shallying as with that fence-straddling prince of Denmark; no encounters with insecurity as suffered by that marauding thane in Scotland.

“Lear,” by contrast, charts the arrogant king’s abrupt downfall after he foolishly bases his choices for dividing up his kingdom on his elder daughters’ phony supplications. The fatal cocktail of Lear’s vanity, mixed with the daughters’ undiluted malevolence, takes us with them slam-bang into the darkness.

This “Lear” wisely plays in softer ways with the overarching conceit, and the manner in which images of hardness and delicacy intermingle will have you musing long after the lights come up. As has become customary, composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze provides the soundscape, this time alternately harsh and plaintive, and aside from the occasional grunt or shriek from an actor, that is all the help for the ear you receive.

Lear’s lapse into a second childhood after his brutal rejection at the hands of Goneril (Ira Koval) and Regan (Irina Tsikurishvili) is handled in a tenderly mimed scene: Black-cloaked Death (Renata Loman) dangles a red butterfly on a string just beyond Lear’s grasp, and he pursues it with a joy no longer accessible in other corners of his realm. His dreams are now of innocence and freedom, for soon he will reenter, pulling a tricycle and carrying a butterfly net.

His blighted domain is hauntingly realized by set designer Phil Charlwood as a husk of a no man’s land. Just as the lightness of Synetic’s wordless “King Arthur” last fall was expressed in a natural element — the stage was flooded with water — the desert of Lear’s heart is reinforced in this landscape. The floor of the stage is thick with sand, and the actors slog through it, as if nature has them by the ankles. When the winds howl in Lear’s celebrated scene on the heath, the earth kicks dirt in his face. So degraded is his condition that it even rains sand.

Other touches betray Paata Tsikurishvili’s conviction that no text is truly sacred. Chief among these is his decision to cast Lear’s only devoted daughter, Cordelia — the one he spurns — as a man. Chris Dinolfo inhabits the role as principled son in a dunce’s cap — and with a sexual desire for other men. So that’s why the king volcanically disapproves! It’s a reasonable casting choice in a production so idiosyncratic, and Dinolfo’s vigorous commitment assists in the illusion.

Many other Synetic veterans contribute supple portraits. Koval and Irina Tsikurishvili resourcefully turn Goneril and Regan into veritable evil twins, and their dance-off for pieces of the realm is both daffy and inspired. (The shabby-chic-ness of costume designer Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili’s looks for them and others is a decided asset.) Hector Reynoso turns in an affecting performance as the tale’s other misguided father, Gloucester, he of the plucked-out eyes. And as his polar-opposite sons, virtuous Edgar and diabolical Edmund, Cunis and Philip Fletcher provide the sort of acrobatic and balletic thrills for which the company is deservedly known.

The production also introduces Synetic audiences to the ethereal physicality of Mirenka Cechova, whose benevolent, balloon-toting Fool seems to float over the sand, under the flaming red-orange skies of lighting designer Andrew Griffin. Her Felliniesque essence helps stamp this “Lear” as a garish midway for a damned court, filled with souls far more absurd than she.

King Lear

based on the play by William Shakespeare, adapted by Paata Tsikurishvili and Ben Cunis. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; original music, Konstantine Lortkipanidze. With Greg Anderson, Chris Galindo, Peter Pereyra, Ryan Tumulty, Matthew Ward, Dallas Tolentino. About 95 minutes. Through April 24 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Visit www.synetictheater.org or call 202-547-1122.

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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