The Unquiet Silence of Synetic's 'Macbeth'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 20, 2007

Synetic Theater is experiencing its finest hour (and a half) with a fiercely athletic "Macbeth," a fiery adaptation that puts the company's dynamic style on exhilarating display.

Building on technical prowess gained over the years with each new spin of the classics, Synetic founders Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili locate a world all their own in this oft-performed Shakespearean tragedy. They and their expertly drilled cadre of actor-dancers provide an aptly bleak and fluid universe for the terrifying events the Macbeths set in motion.

And I do mean motion.

Unlike the more cerebrally tragic Hamlet, Macbeth is a man of pure action, egged on in his gory ambition by a wife captive to vengeful domination fantasies. As emigres from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, the Tsikurishvilis seem to have knowledge of power-tripping archetypes seared in their souls.

The murderous swath that Macbeth cuts through the Scottish nobility -- presented in the Rosslyn Spectrum in the dark modern dress of a military regime -- provides the fertile narrative framework for director Paata and choreographer Irina. In their wordless take, "Macbeth" is all carnage, committed in flurries of daggers and hails of bullets. Shakespeare might have chosen to keep offstage Macbeth's slaughter of Duncan, the Scottish king, but Paata and his co-adapter, Nathan Weinberger, want us all as witnesses to regicide.

The shock on the face of Dan Istrate's Duncan, as Irakli Kavsadze's Macbeth lunges with the knife, seals the idea of this Macbeth as a treasonous thug. Head shaved, the hulking Kavsadze encourages our belief in Macbeth as willing henchman in the grotesque schemes of Lady Macbeth -- played as platinum-blond femme fatale by the luminous Irina -- to put her husband on the throne by any means necessary.

Synetic's "Macbeth" is an opening act of Shakespeare in Washington, the six-month exploration of the Bard's cultural impact, and this locally nurtured company applies a captivating early brushstroke. The city can be proud that a small troupe of this caliber has the technique -- and yes, the outsize ambition -- for such a sophisticated undertaking.

The company's stock-in-trade is adaptation: translating folk tales, literary novels, poems and plays into its own hybridizing physical style. Like the version of "Hamlet" they developed several years ago, the Tsikurishvilis have fashioned their "Macbeth" without a trace of dialogue. On this occasion, the play is choreographed to an intensely passionate score by Georgian composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze. The music adds depth and context, such as when the Macbeths cement their dastardly covenant in a taut tango. Where a royal family is concerned, it takes two to terrorize.

The seamlessness of this "Macbeth" will reanimate a debate among the company's devotees: Is Synetic better when it doesn't put words in actors' mouths? Problems with inferior scripts and thick accents -- some of the actors are from former Soviet-bloc nations -- become glaring in some Synetic productions. Those concerns vanish when the troupe is called on to express plot and character entirely through movement.

More so than novels Synetic has dramatized, such as Shelley's "Frankenstein" or Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita," Shakespeare's tragedies conform quite pliantly to the dance-play: Their dramatic arc and readily accessible emotions lend themselves to adaptation. It certainly helps to know your Macduffs from your Banquos before sitting down in the Spectrum, but you needn't memorize "Macbeth" to understand easily what transpires.

Paata Tsikurishvili has a thing for the supernatural, and so his "Macbeth" accords inordinate prominence to the three witches who forecast Macbeth's bloody rise and ruin. They're played here hypnotically by Philip Fletcher, Meghan Grady and Katherine E. Hill as ethereal if corrupted beings. Like the Macbeths, they have an interest in coup d'etat; in a prologue entirely improvised by Tsikurishvili, three religious men, a pope, a rabbi and an imam are overpowered and supplanted by the witches, who are invigorated by the Macbeths' negative energy.

Is understanding "Macbeth" advanced in this confrontation between the pagan world and monotheism? It's difficult to see how.

Still, a director flexing his imaginative muscle does not take anything away from this production, for the Tsikurishvilis make strides on both macro and micro levels. In the Macbeths' progression from homicidal arrogance to bottomless guilt, you get the full brunt of the tragedy. (Wearing red satin gloves, this Lady Macbeth has blood on her hands from the very beginning.) The sensitivity to the text yields small, rich moments of theatricality. A flame and simple gesture are all that are required, for example, in an exquisite evocation of "Out, out brief candle."

To some greater degree, the choreography feels of a piece. "Macbeth" is free of subplots, which perhaps is an aid when determining how dance is to tell a story. The movement looks smart, down to the stylized salutes: an arm thrust downward diagonally, as if a Nazi "Heil!" were the preamble to the plunging of a shiv.

The cast is uniformly up to the physical demands. The earthy Kavsadze is a galvanizing counterpoint to the swanlike Irina, whose mad scene -- no cleanser will erase those damned spots -- feels like the inevitable culmination of all her bad vibes. Fletcher, a Synetic veteran, has never been used more effectively than as an otherworldly being who appears to drift among on low-slung clouds.

And in an auspicious Synetic debut, the gifted Ben Cunis brings an acrobat's heroic, airborne grace to the role of Macduff, who challenges Macbeth in a powerfully realized duel to the death.

Anastasia Ryurikov Simes, the set designer, places most of the action on a platform raised high above the stage, so that the sight lines are uncommonly good. In other words, like pretty much everything else on this superb evening, the work is elevated.

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, in an adaptation by Paata Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; sets and costumes, Anastasia Ryuirkov Simes; lighting, Colin K. Bills; With Armand Sindoni, Andrew Zox, Niki Jacobsen, Salma Qarnain, Courtney Pauroso, Michael Way, Miles Butler. About 1 hour 35 minutes. Through Feb. 25 at Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington. Call 703-824-8060 or visit

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