'Host and Guest': Back With a Vengeance

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008

With heart-stopping artistry, Paata Tsikurishvili has brought back one of his signature pieces, "Host and Guest." And six years after its unveiling, it is still a stunner.

The production may now be, in fact, the best that it's ever been. Tsikurishvili has assembled a sterling cast for Synetic Theater's restaging of its original play; it features what has evolved into a reliable stable of company stars. Ben Cunis, Dan Istrate, Philip Fletcher, Irakli Kavsadze and Irina Tsikurishvili, Paata's choreographer-wife, play principal characters in this shattering story of eye-for-an-eye, and they do so with a passion and sure-footedness that seem to rev up more intensely the tale's dramatic engine.

Paata Tsikurishvili, who arrived here from the Republic of Georgia more than a decade ago, had planned to begin Synetic's season at the Rosslyn Spectrum with a new adaptation of the silent horror film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Then, last month, Russian tanks poured into his Black Sea homeland. The director immediately scrapped "Caligari," replacing it with a show that he thought would express something far more timely, about conflict between neighbors and the intractable nature of ethnic hatred.

"Host and Guest," adapted for the company in 2002 by Roland L. Reed from a 19th-century Georgian epic poem, explores in 75 gripping minutes the blood-lust that consumes a village in the mountains of the Caucasus after one of its own gives shelter to a member of an enemy tribe. Though the host, Istrate's Joqola, is Muslim, and his guest, Cunis's Zviadauri, is Christian, the play refers only very vaguely to their differing religious and cultural traditions. It is more about the intertwining of their fates -- and the great dignity with which they face their inevitable ends -- once they've tripped the wire of their communities' savage, mutual loathing.

The work feels sleeker than in incarnations past, the lines delivered with more fluidity, the dances executed with more acrobatic leaps and crisper unisons. While the movement has been choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili to a recorded score arranged by Konstantine Lortkipanidze, what runs through your mind is the ticking of a time bomb.

Joqola and Zviadauri meet by accident in a damp forest -- the ensemble, holding treelike poles and swaying in shadow to a sad mountain melody, remains one of Synetic's most mystical images -- where both are hunting for deer. These are men who value action over words, so the clipped exchanges Reed writes for them convey an earthy stoicism. After Joqola invites his new companion to his home, to gut and celebrate their kill, their joy is evoked in a virile, ritualized dance.

In the manner of all kinds of knee-jerk vengefulness, things quickly fall apart for them and Joqola's wife, Aghaza (the always-amazing Irina Tsikurishvili). The village, outraged at Joqola's flouting of the taboo against giving comfort to the enemy, rally around the rabble-rousing elder Musa (a compelling Kavsadze), who demands that Joqola turn over his guest to them. The dissident Joqola, however, citing the revered local mandate for civility and hospitality -- "The guest," he recites, "will be the last to die" -- refuses. So the fuse is lighted.

The descent into calamity is orchestrated with a paradoxical beauty. From a sacrifice conducted in the village cemetery to the outfitting of combatants in the rival village, each stylized sequence builds hypnotically on the one before. Drumbeats and ethereal recorded voices further cement the tension. Even a scene as bleak as a mountaintop suicide, conjured by actors and a few pieces of wood, is rendered as a horror floating in a dream.

Istrate and Cunis, each of whom has appeared in several Synetic shows, come more magnetically into their own in "Host and Guest"; the company is having a much more rewarding time of late, minting its own cadre of exciting actor-dancers. (Even so, it has found much more success in filling out the ranks of men with star potential than women.) Fletcher is a sturdy anchor here in the ensemble sequences, and the presence in the cast of veterans Armand Sindoni and John Milosich offers a welcome link to Synetic seasons past.

The company, too, seems to be making its peace with the aesthetic and practical limitations of the sterile Spectrum auditorium, which still looks more conducive to final exam-taking than to theater. Designer Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili's set -- sheer fabric draped over a house of metal poles -- proves an asset here again, allowing the nightmarish events to unfold in an atmosphere of spartan starkness.

That simplicity heightens the blunt-force clarity of the play, which invites you to experience not only the hearts and homes afire in the Caucasus, but also the long-simmering enmities that burst into flame everywhere else.

Host and Guest, by Roland L. Reed, adapted from a poem by Vazha Pshavela. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; vocal direction, Elizabeth van den Berg. With Julia Proctor, Ryan Sellers, Alex Mills, Ben Russo, Vato Tsikurishvili, Kate Maguire, Stacey Jackson. About 75 minutes. Through Nov. 9 at Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington. Call 800-494-8497 or visit

© 2008 The Washington Post Company