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Review: The rising passion, and artistry, of Synetic's 'Antony and Cleopatra'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 2010; C01

Graduation day is always a big event. But when it happens in the life of a theater company, it's cause for a rarer brand of jubilation.

So crack open the bubbly and pass around the party favors. With its spectacular rendition of "Antony and Cleopatra," Synetic Theater unquestionably ascends to the first rank of major Washington ensembles.

On this occasion, the nomadic troupe -- crammed, forever temporarily, into an ill-fitting conference center in Rosslyn -- moves for the first time to the Lansburgh Theatre on Seventh Street NW, normally one of Shakespeare Theatre Company's spaces.

The effect is momentous. It's such a gift for an audience, getting an opportunity to see this astonishing group cavort on a more suitable stage and in a more technically sophisticated environment, that one is tempted to wag a finger at the company and tell it that it cannot go home again.

Synetic: You can't go home again.

Would someone give the company's founders, Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili, the keys to a theater of their own? And make it a good one! The Tsikurishvilis rise to this turning point in their evolution from threadbare upstarts to vital part of the region's artistic fabric, showing us in 95 breathtaking minutes why the decade-old Synetic's trajectory is as exhilarating as any venture in town.

With Paata in the director's chair and Irina as choreographer (she also plays Cleopatra), the couple has constructed out of Shakespeare's romantic tragedy a taut evening ripe for superlatives. Their longtime creative team seems to have expanded its palette as well. From the tantalizing complexity of Konstantine Lortkipanidze's original score to the camera-ready costumes by Anastasia Rurikov Simes, this latest production represents an advance in the Synetic aesthetic on almost every count.

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The maturing is apparent, too, in the young corps of elastic, athletic actor-dancers who are developing into stars in their own right. Once, it was merely Paata -- often taking on the male leading roles -- and the classical-ballet-trained Irina who were indispensable. Now you can confidently add the likes of Alex Mills, Ben Cunis and Philip Fletcher to that essential inner circle. Mills's surreal flexibility, Cunis's sinewy virility and Fletcher's gymnastic grace have become bona fide Synetic signatures. (The Tsikurishvilis' next company-building task is to develop a cadre of women to match the men; one wonders if the reliance on Irina's undeniable star power has to some degree inhibited that process.)

That's not to diminish the contributions of other emerging standouts, such as Ryan Sellers, Mary Werntz, Natalie Berk or Dan Istrate, who is not in this production. (And Irakli Kavsadze, the Tsikurishvilis' compatriot from the Republic of Georgia, remains an important link to Synetic's roots in the pantomime tradition of that nation.) Their talents seem more and more remarkably interwoven.

And their "Antony and Cleopatra" is unmistakably Synetic. Like the Tsikurishvilis' previous takes on Shakespeare, in "Hamlet . . . the rest is silence," "Macbeth," "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," this piece is performed without a single line of dialogue. Words often get in the way of this company, which tends to be heard most purely when it is speaking with its arms and legs.

Paata Tsikurishvili and his co-adapter, Nathan Weinberger, invite into their version ample amounts of heat and light. The passion of this Antony -- played with a dashing intensity by Cunis -- for Irina Tsikurishvili's sensuous, impetuous Cleopatra is apparent in every moment their eyes meet and their bodies entwine, under Colin K. Bills's potently theatrical lighting. And the love story is framed thrillingly by a series of fight scenes that are among the best this warrior-loving ensemble has ever devised.

The discipline of the unison moments of Synetic's choreography is always impressive, but in this staging the rigor is taken to another level. You may find yourself trying to imagine for days afterward how 10 cutlass-carrying actors can synchronize the crossing of their weapons so that it sounds as if only a single pair of blades were meeting. And how well do those blades have to be handled for them to give off actual sparks?

Shakespeare's plot, about the general who falls for the royal Egyptian temptress and battles the Roman emperor with whom he formerly shared power, is not as solidly fixed in the popular imagination as the others Synetic has taken on. So it's a credit to the adapters that the story plays out so accessibly. Paata Tsikurishvili and Weinberger do a fair amount of tinkering; to give the narrative more sweep, they graft onto their production, for instance, the climactic assassination in "Julius Caesar." It's enacted artfully in a sequence in the Roman Senate, where Brutus (Peter Pereyra) and his accomplices carry out the crime, the blows dramatized as the leaving of individual bloody palm prints on the white sash of Kavsadze's Caesar.

* * *

Simes's set consists of one dominant structure, a functional, towering pyramid equipped with steps and doors, and the lavish wardrobe she's designed adds the cinematic patina of an old-style costume epic, down to gilded get-ups for the Egyptian tomb dwellers. She has come up with some witty props, too, such as the pair of miniature barges Antony and the queen use to convey flirtatious messages to each other across a banquet table.

The wit is at all times apropos, even in this adaptation's most outrageous scene, in which Fletcher's imperious Octavius Caesar performs a lewd pas de deux with a dummy -- presumably a mocking version of Cleopatra, whom he scorns in the text as a whore.

Werntz is expressively convincing as the emperor's sister, Octavia, whose arranged marriage to Antony outrages Cleopatra -- no one seems able to spin a tantrum quite like Irina. And Mills, the Gumby-esque Puck of Synetic's "Midsummer," is here cast as Cleopatra's No. 1 gofer, and he manages the creepy illusion of slithering like some kind of enchanted insect.

The center, though, is held by Cunis and Irina Tsikurishvili, utterly persuasive as the kind of obsessive, incautious lovers who could dance their way to oblivion. And this on a defining evening for Synetic, when the company dances away with your heart.

Antony and Cleopatra

Adapted from Shakespeare by Paata Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; sound, Irakli Kavsadze; fight choreography, Ben Cunis. With Ben Russo, Scott Brown, Chris Galindo, Vato Tsikurishvili. About 90 minutes. Through Feb. 28 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit http://www.synetictheater.org.

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