From Synetic, A 'Carmen' That's Lithe On Its Feet

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008

Don Jose may be eternally afflicted with love for a Gypsy siren, but in Synetic Theater's new adaptation of "Carmen," he's come down with something even more virulent: dance fever.

This highly contagious condition, in fact, spreads to everyone on the stage of the Kennedy Center's Family Theater, where the restlessly ambitious company is unveiling its movement-based version of the 19th-century novella, made famous, of course, as the Georges Bizet opera. Inside a circular, cagelike set by Anastasia Ryurikov Simes, 13 actors fly, flex, flounce and fling themselves wildly around, as if passion demanded propulsion.

In short, the dancing -- to Konstantine Lortkipanidze's vibrant original score -- is dynamite. The same cannot be said for the dialogue devised by director Paata Tsikurishvili and his co-adapter, Nathan Weinberger, which repeatedly threatens to stymie the evening's combustibility.

Still, the surefire physical thrills, particularly as executed by invigorating leads Ben Cunis, Philip Fletcher and, playing the tempestuous title character, Irina Tsikurishvili, overshadow the expository dead spots. The actors' grace and fervor are as useful measures as any of how watchable this "Carmen" manages to be.

The production concludes what must be recorded as one of Synetic's most artistically successful seasons ever. In addition to the lusty "Carmen," Synetic, over the last several months, has presented an eerily sensual riff on Edgar Allan Poe in "The Fall of the House of Usher" and, perhaps the most exciting in its continuing series of Shakespeares-without-words, an astonishingly lyrical "Romeo and Juliet." (Only in a perfunctory holiday offering of "A Christmas Carol" did the troupe fail to meet its own rising standards.)

This season will also go down as the pivotal one in which Synetic, so reliant on composers such as Lortkipanidze, who like the Tsikurishvilis hails from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, made a transition from recorded compositions to live music. For this piece, the director deploys musicians even more dynamically than in "Romeo and Juliet": A violinist in costume, Rafael Javadov, is perched on a platform above the stage, a kind of Iberian fiddler on the roof.

"Carmen" allows the Tsikurishvilis -- Irina, as usual, serves as choreographer here -- to indulge their thematic predilections for passion and violence. Their custom is to construct explosive packages around these basic human impulses, via the plots and characters of classic plays and novels.

The ingredients of Prosper Mérimée's novella, concerning the jealousy that festers in the heart of the soldier Don Jose as he seeks full possession of earthy, elusive Carmen, serve the Tsikurishvilis especially well. As in their memorable "Macbeth" last season, the Tsikurishvilis play here with the discipline and drama of military culture: The gymnastic dance-off between their Macbeth and Macduff corresponds to a climactic confrontation here between Jose (Cunis) and the bullfighter (Fletcher) who conspires to steal Carmen's heart.

The adapters toss in, too, a la their "Macbeth," elements to suggest that we are no longer in a specific century, but in some indefinite Everytime: Carmen's Gypsy husband Garcia (Roger Payano) is depicted now as a drug dealer, conveying a white powder in plastic bags. This allows for some choreographic leeway as well, for the actors not only mimic some of the gestures and steps of traditional Spanish dance, but also such unlikely genres as martial arts combat. The evening's standout sequence showcases the irresistible Irina in a terrific fusion number, something that might be called flamenco hip-hop.

What compels much of the dancing in this tale of seduction and desire is, quite naturally, sex, or rather the promise of it. Cunis, who was the Tsikurishvilis' Romeo, makes a convincing embodiment of sexual obsession, and his acrobatic skill -- the set is his entertaining monkey bars -- provides an apt counterpoint for the more balletic and perfectly cast Fletcher.

Simes dresses all the characters with sex on the brain, allowing the men to show off taut torsos and women to bare toned midriffs. (This is Synetic's sexiest choreography since the kinky gyrations of "Faust.") No one's decked out more alluringly than Irina, who, it seems, puts on a new costume every 10 minutes and after every solo leaves us in a turbulent wake.

The midair sensation created by these portrayals suffers a sudden loss of altitude whenever dialogue scenes intrude. The conversations tend to be short and very flat: "Come with me and leave all this!" cries Don Jose. "Why should I?" asks Carmen. "Do you love me?" he replies. All at once, the characters go from ethereal to pedestrian.

The set, too, has a distracting minus: The downstage poles holding up what looks like the skeleton of a tent obscure the actors' faces at vital moments.

As is often the case with Synetic, however, the electricity in the music and movement compel us to overlook the bumps in the story. Like Carmen herself, the production wraps itself around an audience in ways that will not be denied.

Carmen, adapted by Nathan Weinberger and Paata Tsikurishvili, based on the novella by Prosper Mérimée. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; lighting, Colin K. Bills; stage combat, Ben Cunis; sound, Konstantine Lortkipanidze; guitar, Serge Krichenko. With Salma Qarnain, Ryan Sellers, Scott Brown, JR Russ, Courtney Pauroso, Mary Werntz, Natalie Berk, Shannon Dorsey, Vato Tsikurishvili. About 90 minutes. Through June 15 at Kennedy Center. Call 202-467-4600 or visit

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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