Silently but eloquently, Synetic Theater captures fury and passion of 'Othello'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Iago's perfidy is so vast in Synetic Theater's breathtaking new "Othello" that no single actor can contain it. On this occasion he's three, three, three rogues in one. A trio of star company performers -- Philip Fletcher, Alex Mills and Irina Tsikurishvili -- portray Shakespeare's consummate villain, sharing the responsibility for stirring up a cyclone of passions and driving Othello to jealous homicide.

For its sixth venture into a genre that it has all but reinvented -- vacuuming out the dialogue in Shakespeare's greatest works and redecorating with mesmerizing movement -- Synetic has chosen the tragedy of a powerful soldier brought down by a venomous lie. And in the company's telling, it's a corker. Expressed as a tale of vengeful lust, this "Othello" generates enough heat to ignite an industrial furnace.

What director Paata Tsikurishvili and his choreographer wife Irina seem able to do each time they take on Shakespeare is distill raw elements of the plays into feverish bursts of emotional energy. In "Othello," a toxic mixture of desire and the need to control informs the scorching physicality, whether dramatized in Othello's sensual possession of Desdemona, or in Iago's apparent appetite for any sexy thing that crosses his path.

The Tsikurishvilis exhibit a new magnitude of technological proficiency in this production in the Kennedy Center's Family Theater. The nomadic troupe, soon to relocate to a space in Crystal City that Arena Stage has been using while renovating its campus, typically has had to make do with sets and costumes on a limp shoestring. Of late, with its stunning "Antony and Cleopatra" at the Lansburgh Theatre, and now, with "Othello," Synetic appears to be tossing around a few more shekels and, as a result, the theatrical dazzles are looking more deluxe, too.

Here, it's a marvelous infusion of up-to-the-minute visual technique that propels to a higher level the Tsikurishvilis' propensity for illusion. Captured -- in the way that virtually everything else is these days -- on digital devices, the images of a purported tryst between Desdemona (Salma Shaw) and Cassio (Scott Brown) flash across dagger-shaped fragments of Anastasia Rurikov Simes's supple, jagged set. As Roger Payano's impressively virile Othello watches, you appreciate the diabolical editing job Iago has performed, customized to take full advantage of Othello's disastrously suspicious nature.

Konstantine Lortkipanidze's multi-textured original score is the music of unsettling, undermining doubt. It asserts itself as an aural equivalent of Simes's thrusting set pieces, a knifelike imagery that is replicated, too, in the actors' hats.

Paata Tsikurishvili gathers many of his top-tier actor-dancers for this outing, and gratifyingly apportions some choice roles to less-proven performers. While Brown, for instance, has shown athletic promise in other parts, such as that of one of the quartet of young lovers in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," he has never come across as quite the robust presence he does here. Irina Koval, as Iago's wife, Emilia, conveys a thoroughly watchable sultriness. Even more centrally, the pulse-raising pairing of Shaw's alluring Desdemona and Payano's commanding Othello shows the company is nurturing fine new alternatives for the essential Synetic job of magnetizing a story's romantic leads.

Iago, though, is far and away the play's most delectably enigmatic character: Why he chooses to systematically break down Othello is a question that has been debated for centuries. As if to underline their fascination with the sheer number of possible answers, Tsikurishvili and his co-adapter, Nathan Weinberger, create an Iago of demonstrably split personality. Standing at a panel of mirrors, Fletcher sees his reflections burst through the looking glass, in the persons of Mills and Irina Tsikurishvili, identically costumed in Synetic's all but official colors: red, white and black.

Like the witches of "Macbeth," though without their mystical gifts, Synetic's Iagos form a conspiratorial triumvirate that steers events. Each seems to conform to a dimension of Iago's earthbound drives. They seductively run the backs of their hands against the cheeks of other male and female characters, suggesting Iago may have a fatal attraction for Desdemona or Othello -- or both. Irina Tsikurishvili's choreography for the Iagos reinforces the notion of a reptilian symbiosis. At times, they literally become wrapped up in one another. At others, their bodies undulate in a signature Irina move: Call it the Synetic slither.

In the place of the spellbinding soliloquies that allow us to see with Iago's poisoned vision, the multiple dancing Iagos help promote another view of the character, that he remains a mystery, his nature as difficult to sort through as the reflections in the mirrors.

The horrors of the crime to which he spurs Othello, however, remain vivid. And even though the adapters manufacture their own unnecessary prologue for Othello and, in the end, a gratuitous comeuppance for Iago, the tragedy bleeds through profoundly. The null countenance of the murdered Desdemona, dangling like a bruised effigy, casts over this smashing production the right kind of heart-stopping pall.


Adapted from Shakespeare by Paata Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; sets and costumes, Anastasia Rurikov Simes; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; original music and music direction, Konstantine Lortkipanidze; sound, Irakli Kavsadze. With Peter Pereyra, Vato Tsikurishvili, Armand Sindoni, Natalie Berk. About 90 minutes. Through July 3 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit or call 202-467-4600.

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