Synetic Theater Stages a Reaction To Georgia War

"I wanted to respond some way because innocent people are dying," Paata Tsikurishvili says of Synetic's revival of Georgian-themed "Host and Guest." (By Leah L. Jones For The Washington Post)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

As rehearsals were gearing up last week for their first show of the season -- an original stage adaptation of the vintage horror film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" -- the leaders of Synetic Theater faced an uncharacteristic problem: They lacked the energy to care.

Half a world away, Russian tanks were rolling into their homeland, the small, mountainous nation of Georgia, from which Synetic's founders, Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili, emigrated more than a dozen years ago, and where several other Synetic actors and musicians also were born.

"We were emotionally completely in different place," Irina Tsikurishvili explains. "We get into rehearsal and we were starting to talk 'Caligari' -- and the talk goes to Georgia right away."

Anyone who has seen the Arlington-based company's passionate, movement-driven work knows the theatrical universe inhabited by Synetic is nothing if not intense. So it comes as no surprise that anxieties the invasion unleashed in members of the company -- the only Georgian-led troupe in North America -- would provoke a powerful reaction, of a sort that might inevitably spill onto the stage.

Which is precisely what has happened. The little company, which over the past decade or so has developed a dedicated following on the heels of admiring reviews and a slew of awards, has taken the unusual step of dropping an advertised opening production at the last minute, replacing it with one allowing for a more personal expression of anguish.

Synetic is working double time to substitute a revival of "Host and Guest," the company's stirring 2002 creation set in a rugged Georgian enclave, where ethnic hostilities come to a barbaric boil and a bond sealed between longtime enemies leads to calamity. If all goes according to schedule, "Host and Guest" will begin performances next month at Synetic's part-time home, the Rosslyn Spectrum.

"As a Georgian, I've got pain," says Paata Tsikurishvili, Synetic's artistic director, who came to Washington in 1995 unable to speak English but aching to make an artistic mark. "I'm not a politician. I also have Russian friends. I wanted to respond some way because innocent people are dying. And I thought, 'Host and Guest' is the only way to do it."

By virtue of its local renown, Synetic has become not only a force in Washington theater, but also a touchstone for the small Georgian community here.

In addition to its celebrated, highly physical reworkings of Shakespeare, the troupe has tried to appeal at times specially to Georgian tastes, with such offerings as "The Crackpots," an original stage version of a popular Georgian film comedy. The company's interests extend beyond the Caucasus, however, in terms of both audiences and artists. Anastasia Ryurikov Simes, Synetic's set and costume designer, is Russian; Dan Istrate, an actor who's often seen in Synetic productions, is from Romania; and the troupe has also staged adaptations of Russian works, such as Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita." (The majority of Synetic's actors are young and American.)

Still, with a geopolitical crisis brewing in Georgia, the chord that's been struck with Synetic is deep. Paata Tsikurishvili's father, Vakhtang, and his sister Tamar still live in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, and other company members, such as Irakli Kavsadze (who has played Scrooge and Macbeth for Paata), have ties just as profound: Kavsadze is from a famous Georgian family that has been in the theater there for generations.

"Me and Irakli and Konstantine, we thought maybe we should consider somehow to support," Paata Tsikurishvili says, referring to Kavsadze and Konstantine Lortkipanidze, Synetic's Georgian-born composer. "We thought we should go there and stand next to our own people. And then," he added, "we found out it's not a wise move."

Worried about their relatives (Kavsadze says he had sent his two school-age daughters to Georgia for the summer) and about the survival of President Mikheil Saakashvili's pro-Western government, Synetic's Georgians had debated their other options. Ultimately, they fell back on what they do best.

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