BACKSTAGE

A wet and wordless 'King Arthur' from Synetic Theater

RETURN OF THE KING: Lancelot (Vato Tsikurishvili) and Arthur (Ben Cunis) fight in Synetic Theater's "King Arthur."
RETURN OF THE KING: Lancelot (Vato Tsikurishvili) and Arthur (Ben Cunis) fight in Synetic Theater's "King Arthur." (Graeme B. Shaw)
By Jane Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The stage will be under three inches of water and ticket buyers are forewarned about sitting in the "splash zone" for Synetic Theater's new show.

"King Arthur" is a wordless rendering of the knightly legend. The show runs Thursday through Oct. 31 at the company's new Crystal City home -- where Arena Stage performed during the renovation of its Southwest campus -- courtesy of the Crystal City Business Improvement District.

Ben Cunis, who will play the title role and who wrote the adaptation with Synetic's artistic director, Paata Tsikurishvili, says the piece takes inspiration from many versions of the legend.

"You'll see motifs and images from Celtic myth, from the French romances . . . you'll have stuff all the way up into 'The Mists of Avalon,' " says the actor, referring to a popular 1983 novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley that focused on women in the Arthurian saga.

The Synetic version, Cunis says, lifts elements of Sir Thomas Malory's 15th-century epic, "Le Morte d'Arthur," as well as such 20th-century works as T.H. White's "The Once and Future King" and John Boorman's film "Excalibur." All that, plus the creators' own imaginations, helped Synetic make the story its own.

Then there was the matter of working with water, which seemed like a splash-fest at first -- until the troupe realized just how "stubborn" water could be. Synetic choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili says she told her cast: "Don't think about the splashes, guys, because the water has character all by itself. . . . You have to readjust the choreography because of the nature of water."

Glittering splashes may be beautiful under the lights, but the slipperiness and coldness of the water present challenges, the choreographer says.

"We use water not for [the sake of using] water but symbolically," says Paata Tsikurishvili, who directs the show. "You have the Lady of the Lake [giving Excalibur to Arthur], you have the sword coming up and piercing the lake." There are eye-fooling sequences with characters "drowning and coming up, drowning and coming up," he says.

The idea of telling the story wordlessly (but with a new score by in-house composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze) and distilled into a kind of symbolic shorthand makes sense to its creators. Says Cunis: "Arthur is so archetypal . . . that once you start to try and layer text to it, it almost takes away from it. We have these images that are ingrained in our cultural consciousness, and that's what we use to tell the story."

"When you watch without text, it makes you participate" by creating dialogue in your mind, Paata Tsikurishvili says. "It makes you part of it."

Musical tool time

It's not every touring orchestra that gets its spare parts from home-improvement stores. Such is the case, however, with the instruments played in "Pandemonium: The Lost and Found Orchestra" (coming to the National Theatre, Tuesday through Oct. 10). There are garden hoses, funnels, bottles and saws that need replacing from time to time.

"Pandemonium" sprung from the minds of Luke Cresswell, 46, and Steve McNicholas, 54, the British co-creators of the hugely successful, much-toured percussion show "Stomp," which also derives from a kind of homemade music. But "Pandemonium" requires a larger ensemble of players who coax notes and harmonies out of instruments that look like hoses, saws or bottles with bellows attached but can sound remarkably like brass sections, violins or flutes.


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