'Romeo and Juliet': Such Sweet Sorrow

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

If you've never experienced the hyper-theatrical dance moves and dramatics of the astonishing Synetic Theater, may I suggest that now would be a very good time to start?

Your point of entry at the moment is a new adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet," a production that, owing to its sophisticated melding of sensuality, musicality and storytelling, lifts the company to another magnitude of accomplishment.

Synetic -- under the leadership of director Paata Tsikurishvili and wife Irina, the dancer-choreographer -- has always used rigorous acrobatics and stylized movement to express the passions alive in the versions of well-known plays, short stories and novels it primarily dramatizes. What often rescues these works from the well of the mundane or shopworn is the company's unshakable belief that it has something crucial to say about them -- and then demonstrates it, in imagery-rich explosions of physicality.

That facility has been especially apparent in Synetic's wordless reimaginings of Shakespeare, which release the company from its sometime struggle to reach a comfort level with language that matches its ease with the body. First in "Hamlet . . . the rest is silence" and then with "Macbeth," the Tsikurishvilis had the advantage of working with the exposition of familiar, school-taught scenes and plays, which they were able to transform into easy-to-decode waves of pure and emphatic gesture.

The approach has been hammered to an even more exhilarating finish in the "Romeo and Juliet" they are presenting at the Rosslyn Spectrum. Utilizing perhaps the most fluidly integrated and athletically gifted ensemble they've ever assembled, the Tsikurishvilis create a dance-play version of the tale that at times brings to mind the youth-driven elan and poignancy of "West Side Story."

The 90-minute production gallops by, testimony to the exertions of both the company and Shakespeare. Our collective fatigue with this most accessible and oft-performed of Shakespeare's tragedies can dull a spectator to the play's seamless craftsmanship, its propulsive story, its unrelenting tension. Synetic's penchant for tornadic activity plays exceptionally well with the heightened emotional tempests of "Romeo and Juliet," suggesting that few notions lend themselves more credibly to quicksilver leaps and gyrations than the raging of teenage hormones.

Such is the concentration here on the impetuosity of youth that the adapters, Nathan Weinberger and Paata Tsikurishvili, have simply excised some of the older characters and shaved decades off the ages of others. Thus Juliet's Nurse, typically portrayed by a player of some maturity, is embodied by an actress, Marissa Molnar, who looks no older than Courtney Pauroso's dewy Juliet. As a result, choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili is free to design for the taunting of the Nurse by Romeo's friends a slapstick tumbling routine in which Molnar gives as good as she gets.

Assigning the role of the wit-meister Mercutio to a thrillingly elastic Philip Fletcher, meanwhile, gives this young company regular the best and showiest role of his Synetic life. He creates with his elongated limbs and effortless-looking spins and spills exactly the sort of exuberant comedy Mercutio would have been capable of, had he enrolled early in the Verona Academy of Dance.

Most critical, of course, is the casting of Juliet and Romeo, and the choices here not only generate applause, but also heat. An angelic Pauroso is paired with the rugged Ben Cunis, and there's more than a little bit of the golden couple about them; you're encouraged to believe that despite being from eternally warring families, they really have been waiting all their short lives for each other.

The magnetic attraction is totally convincing, and developed thoughtfully in a repeated emphasis -- aided by lighting designer Colin K. Bills -- on the intermingling hands of the lovers. Inspired, it seems, by Juliet's line in their first awed encounter at the Capulet party, "and palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss," the director suggests a Romeo and Juliet so emotionally synchronized that their romance can be conducted by touch.

The idea is not merely tossed in. It's further developed, in an artful scene imbued with just the slightest tinge of the blue. A swath of white fabric is stretched across the stage, behind which Cunis and Pauroso's shadows embrace and undulate in stages of undress. For those who have seen or remember the depiction of budding sexuality in Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film version, the Tsikurishvilis' tableau feels like a natural extension.

Hands are obliquely conjured, too, in Anastasia Ryurikov Simes's set, which is dominated by a clock's giant wheels and gears and pendulum. The hands in this regard are by implication those of time, which weighs so heavily on the doomed lovers.

The multilayered original score by Konstantine Lortkipanidze reinforces the conceit subtly, with a beat that sounds at times like a tick-tock played as distortions on a scratched record. For the first time, Synetic places a live musician on the stage -- in this case, Lortkipanidze himself -- and the choice adds a dimension of immediacy. The composer, perched atop the set, handles the electronic soundscape as if he were a deejay and the play were a disco hot spot.

The music and swinging pendulum mark each precious moment, as if to memorialize each short minute of bliss the lovers get to share. On this evening, the tragedy of their time running out becomes an enthralling bereavement for us all.

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, adapted by Paata Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; sets and costumes, Anastasia Ryurikov Simes; sound, Irakli Kavsadze and Konstantine Lortkipanidze. With Ryan Sellers, Scott Brown, Salma Qamain, Nick Vienna, Madeline Carr, Meghan Grady, Vato Tsikurishvili, Irakli Kavsadze. About 90 minutes. Through March 8 at Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington. Call 703-824-8060 or visit

© 2008 The Washington Post Company