Glisten up: Synetic's 'King Arthur' makes a splash without saying a word

WET & WILD: Brynn Tucker and Ben Cunis in "King Arthur."
WET & WILD: Brynn Tucker and Ben Cunis in "King Arthur." (Graeme B. Shaw)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Every knight into the pool! For the baptismal production in its new home in Crystal City, Synetic Theater has left the water running. It's ankle-deep on the stage throughout the 90 heart-jolting minutes of "King Arthur," the latest addition to the company's repertory of wordless movement-dramas.

Put aside for a moment the question of why on earth Arthur and his coterie are gathering at a Round Table that's desperately in need of waterproofing. The liquid spectacle that director Paata Tsikurishvili and his choreographer wife Irina have devised is a rollicking treat, a gymnastic epic spraying ample amounts of delight -- and wetness -- across the auditorium.

This much simultaneous dancing and splashing have not been on display since Gene Kelly brandished an umbrella in "Singin' in the Rain." The cavorting knights, led by Ben Cunis's brawny King Arthur, joust and spar and spin and somersault in the shallow lake, as if all day, every day were bath time. Watching actors slash at each other with gleaming swords on slippery-looking surfaces does compel you to wonder about insurance premiums. But that's the fun in a production that works so hard to get the juices flowing.

The Tsikurishvilis have had some of their grandest successes over the past decade by stripping classic plays of the spoken word and letting actors' bodies do the talking. Shakespeare was the inspiration for their previous dialogue-free dance plays; many other Synetic offerings do incorporate dialogue. Now, as they embark on their 10th season, in a space that until recently served as a temporary theater for Arena Stage, the Tsikurishvilis turn to the legend of Arthur to broaden their source material for wordless works.

Their "King Arthur" is as explosively physical as anything they've ever done, and some of the sequences expose new facets of their ambition to evolve as entertainers. The scene, for instance, of Arthur's marriage to Guinevere (a radiant Brynn Tucker) outdoes Synetic's prior attempts at buoyant ceremony. The throne throws a pool party! The wedding guests twirl to Konstantine Lortkipanidze's mash-up musical compositions -- one minute they sound like disco, the next, a Celtic folk song. Caught up in the joy of the moment, the guests kick shafts of water into the audience. (Like ticket holders to Gallagher's shows, front-row denizens here wear splash protection.)

The plot, worked out in the adaptation by Cunis and his director, follows the legend's familiar developments, such as young Arthur's pulling Excalibur from a stone and the king's celebrated gathering of the knights. Reflecting Synetic's own preoccupations, it also emphasizes Arthur and Guinevere as objects of desire. Here, in the guise of malleable Alex Mills -- strapped up in leather like a catalogue model out of Frederick's of Hollywood -- the magical Merlin is not only a surprisingly youthful being but also a highly sexual one.

Merlin's mentoring of Arthur spills over into covetousness; the caresses that Mills lavishes on Cunis's heroic frame convey anything but paternal intentions. Similarly, the designs on Arthur by his half sister, the evil sorceress Morgan le Fay (Jodi Niehoff), seem exceptionally physical, as she compels him into the carnal act that will produce their corrupt offspring Mordred (Sean Pedersen).

The flip side is the sensuality of the mutually consenting Guinevere and Lancelot, the stalwart knight who steals her heart. Lancelot proves to be a breakout role for the Tsikurishvilis' son Vato, who accomplishes the subtle task of tempering the character's big-lug swagger with a trace of endearing self-awareness.

The fluid landscape, surrounded in Anastasia Rurikov Simes's eye-catching design by walls of rock and movable boulders, serves as a voluptuous cushion for all the lovemaking in Camelot (where, cozily, it also seems to be the rainy season). Still, to suggest a metaphorical justification for rendering Arthur's entire kingdom as a flood plain is a stretch. In the program's elaborate director's note, Tsikurishvili says that in early Celtic legends, "pools and cauldrons figure prominently." Presumably, there's no mention of a constant need for towels.

It also must be noted that a goodly chunk of this "King Arthur" concerns itself with combat, and that after the sixth or seventh or eighth round of knights elbowing enemies in the face or cartwheeling over a stone barrier, all the splashing around begins to look the same.

Yet, with a production this viscerally exciting, you can ignore some of the redundancies and artier rationalizations and simply revel in the exhilarating visual style. (Simes's gorgeous gowns and faux-chain-mail get-ups for the knights assist in the illusions, too.) The cast, from Cunis down to the least-heralded of his Round Table cortege, conspires to confer on "King Arthur" acrobatic intensity and stunt-man panache. Even when water-based, Synetic's thrills are undiluted.

King Arthur

adapted by Paata Tsikurishvili and Ben Cunis. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; sets and costumes, Anastasia Rurikov Simes; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; original music, Konstantine Lortkipanidze; sound, Irakli Kavsadze. With Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly, Dallas Tolentino, JB Tadena, JR Russ, Peter Pereyra, Hector Reynoso. About 90 minutes. Through Oct. 31 at Synetic in Crystal City, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. Visit or call 800-494-8497.

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