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Synetic's Wordless, Wondrous 'Midsummer'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009

As the irrepressible Puck of Synetic Theater's new "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Alex Mills shape-shifts as if he were Silly Putty. His performance establishes the gymnastically playful tone for this beguiling production, the latest in the company's series of Shakespeares ignited with music and dance.

Although an actor sometimes grunts or shrieks or even hums a few bars, what you don't hear on this evening in the Kennedy Center's Family Theater is anything like Shakespeare's verse. Synetic has been down this dialogue-free route before, with "Romeo and Juliet," "Macbeth" and "Hamlet," and each movement-only treatment shows off the Arlington-based troupe to its most dazzling effect.

The follies of "Dream's" young lovers and forest sprites can be played for romance or farce, and here, director Paata Tsikurishvili dabbles in a bit of both.

Aided by Synetic's house composer, Konstantine Lortkipanidze, with his most tunefully supple score to date, Tsikurishvili balances slapstick and lyricism to make poetry. Don't for a minute think of this as "silent" Shakespeare.

Tsikurishvili's essential partner, as always, is his choreographer-wife, Irina, pushing her stylish fusion of acrobatics, expressive gesture and classical movement in new directions. At times, the stunts border on the daredevil: Not many incarnations of this popular play feature Demetrius throwing a horizontal Helena straight into the arms of Lysander.

The Tsikurishvilis have amped up the wow factor by recruiting a powerfully athletic breed of young performer. The fearlessness of the dancing actors -- among them, Philip Fletcher, Ryan Sellers, Marissa Molnar and Mills -- provides Irina (who also plays the fairy queen, Titania) the chance to dabble in choreography as extreme sport. As apt illumination for a plot filled with merry accidents, her dances flirt wondrously with disaster.

The set by Anastasia Ryurikov Simes, bathed in ethereal moonlight, looks like the sort of place a high-spirited 10-year-old instantly would get sweaty. Her fairy-infested woods, where Puck and Fletcher's Oberon work their mischief, is a series of plush vines -- not only decorous, but also good for climbing and swinging.

In faithful fashion, this adaptation by Paata Tsikurishvili and Ben Cunis alternates between the story of the four confused young lovers who escape Athens to pursue (and torment) one another in the forest, and the subplot of the clueless rubes from the city chosen to perform a play for Theseus, the duke. The lovers are portrayed here by Molnar, Irina Koval, Roger Payano and Scott Brown, who convey the tempestuous cycles of rejection and fairy-induced ardor with brio and charm.

For the working-stiff goofballs, Synetic's veteran clown, Irakli Kavsadze, is quite naturally cast as Bottom, the self-infatuated weaver who winds up in Titania's bed, in the magical guise of a donkey. Kavsadze -- like Paata Tsikurishvili trained in mime in their native Republic of Georgia -- handles the metamorphosis from man to ass with such manic physical panache that the usual application of donkey mask or headdress is rendered unnecessary.

Sure, he and the others playing the mechanicals, Sellers, Chris Galindo, Katie Maguire and Vato Tsikurishvili, do at times march right up to the door of hamminess. But the wordless conceit requires a bit of Looney Tunes expressiveness. Besides, with the help of the director, they do manage the daunting task of finding a funny avenue through the story of Pyramus and Thisby, the climactic comic play-within-a-play.

Amusingly, too, a pair of musicians, Konstantine and Levan Lortkipanidze (on piano, flute and guitar) materialize for the low-comedy scenes, to supply an underscoring that reminds you of the kind of live accompaniment from the days before movies had sound.

Irina Tsikurishvili creates a few of her patented dreamlike tableaux for the ensemble, including a partner-exchanging ball at the palace that foreshadows the mix-and-match couplings to come. In their roles as competitive fairy royals, she and Fletcher -- decked out in Simes's sexily exotic costumes -- engage in an erotically charged wrestling match.

Considerably more constant are the impressive gyrations and contortions of Mills's Puck, his costume and hair a pale shade of blue, as if he were about to be consumed in the heat of a candle. The effect is perfect, for Mills's work here is smokin'. His amazing flexibility conforms to a sense of Puck as pliant and resourceful and a bit of a bad boy. This Puck may be robbed of speech, yet nothing is left unsaid.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, by William Shakespeare, adapted by Ben Cunis and Paata Tsikurishvili. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; original music and sound, Konstantine Lortkipanidze; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin. With Shannon A.L. Dorsey, Natalie Berk, Irina Kavsadze, Mary Werntz. About 90 minutes. Through June 14 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit http://www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.

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