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Silent 'Hamlet,' Felt in the Bones
Synetic Theater Mounts A Mesmerizing Revival At the Kennedy Center

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Conflicted, self-doubting Hamlet doesn't usually bring to mind the ardent passions of a Romeo. But in Synetic Theater's illuminating account of "Hamlet," the prince of Denmark has an exquisite Romeo moment.

In the entirely wordless "Hamlet . . . the Rest Is Silence" that opened last week at the Kennedy Center Family Theater, Hamlet is mourning his missed intimacy with Ophelia at her grave as he relives a minimalist dance with her corpse. This delicate duet of fingertips that never touch and hands that cannot clasp conveys Hamlet's tortured inner life with unexpected force.

The fact that the scene pays tribute to the ballet versions of "Romeo and Juliet" -- where a dead girl makes for a creepily heart-rending dance partner -- is natural, given its creator: Irina Tsikurishvili, who choreographed this "Hamlet," trained as a ballet dancer in her native country, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

Tsikurishvili's eloquence with gesture and mime has given a unique look to all of Synetic's productions, which rely on expressive movement as well as acting. But this silent staging, a revival of the acclaimed 2002 production that won three Helen Hayes Awards, is on another scale entirely.

Tsikurishvili and her husband, Paata, who directed the play and stars in it, reduce what can be a four-hour work to 90 minutes, yet its emotional jabs strike as no conventional theatrical production can.

This is an entirely visceral experience. It does not work your intellect but rather lets you intuit the story, drawing you in through the feelings of the characters. There's Hamlet, of course, but also fragile, high-strung Ophelia (played by Irina Tsikurishvili), who in this context is a striking foil for Hamlet's cold and contained mother, Gertrude (Catherine Gasta), and her uneasy new husband, Claudius (the magnetic Irakli Kavsadze). The suspicions in the family -- and the shadows cast across the entire court, which has been indelibly stained by the murder of Hamlet's father -- blare like sirens though the actors, who convey them only through a glance, a gesture and a particular way of moving across the stage.

Although you would never call this a musical, it is a deeply musical production. The Tsikurishvilis chose the accompaniment with a free hand, tossing in funk-rock and violins and a whole lot more. At the start, an increasingly subversive tango for four couples paints an atmosphere reeking with power-lust and manipulation. An inane tune that recalls the forced cheerfulness of 1960s sitcom themes accompanies the play-within-a-play, a burlesque affair rendered with lacerating wit. The reaction of smothered outrage from Claudius and Gertrude, whose behavior is being skewered, is simply perfect.

But theirs was not the only delicious exchange. One of the marvels is the harmoniousness of the cast, how smoothly each performer operates, as if the Tsikurishvilis' stylized world were his native ground. Any dance ensemble would envy such precision.

Paata Tsikurishvili, especially, is a riveting mime. His Hamlet is a man trapped inside himself, incapable of decisions, unable to connect with those around him -- not even Ophelia, whom he cannot bring himself to touch. He has collapsed inside, and Tsikurishvili shows us this with his dropped chin and sunken eyes, and the way even the skin on his face seems to droop.

Kavsadze plays the usurper Claudius as a mesmerizing thug, with the sociopathic gleam in his eye of a Tony Soprano. With that bull neck and intractable glower, you can just about hear him bellow.

Much of the visual appeal of this work lies in its resonant simplicity, from the brilliantly economical movement to the barely-there sets and no-frills black costumes. (The program is a bit too simple, however; if you're not well-versed in the plot and main characters, brush up before you go, as there's no synopsis.)

Metal stretcher-like rectangles are the main props. They serve as biers, doors, mirrors and, in one wonderful how-do-they-do-that moment, as the otherworldly medium through which Hamlet's dead father appears to his son in a vision, as if the ghost were bobbing through breaking surf.

There are many segments that bring the text to life with special vividness, as when Ophelia disappears into the watery depths (with waterlilies floating all around her, suggested by the expressive hands of a few ensemble members), and the "Alas, poor Yorick" scene, a truly wild danse macabre among cadavers and gravediggers. Oh yes, something's rotten in the state of Denmark, and its source is here, where being dead is no escape from corruption.

On the face of it, "Hamlet" might seem a curious choice for a silent treatment. In the internal struggles of the son to avenge his father's death, it is, famously, a play about inaction. Yet Synetic flips that notion on its head, showing us nothing but action -- distilled to a rapier point.

It works in a primal way. You don't understand this "Hamlet" -- you feel it in your gut.

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; lighting, Colin K. Bills; set and costumes, Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili. With Armand Sindoni, Ben Cunis, Philip Fletcher, Geoff Nelson and Nathan Weinberger. Through June 17 at the Kennedy Center Family Theater. Call 202-467-4600.

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