Is that the beating of a drum you hear, or the sound of your own heart pounding? Where the ravishing "Host and Guest" is concerned, it could be either -- or both.
Somehow, in the tight confines of the Church Street Theater, Paata Tsikurishvili and his choreographer wife, Irina, manage to unspool the threads of an epic yarn, a story of bravery and bloodletting in the Caucasus that has all the austere grace of an ancient cave drawing. With a few basic props, their actors conjure a forest in the lowlands or a craggy peak or the macabre aftermath of battle on the open range.
The illusions -- whether of riders on horseback, bearing down on their enemies, or of a dead member of a clan rising from the grave -- are rendered with such refinement and discipline that they imbue "Host and Guest" with an almost cinematic vitality. This serves the Tsikurishvilis well, for the tale, spun in a taut 90 minutes, is an effort to make visceral and urgent the ethnic hatred in a corner of the world remote and exotic to most of us.
Based on a poem by the 19th-century writer Vazha Pshavela of Georgia, the mountainous republic on the Black Sea, this new play, by Roland Reed, is anchored in a specific landscape, but the rival tribes inhabiting it could be stand-ins for combatants anywhere, from the Capulets and Montagues to the Palestinians and Israelis. Like all such blood-soaked feuds, the one shared by the peoples in "Host and Guest" seems impossible to trace back to its origin, and as far as an audience can discern the nature of the grievance is no longer even a relevant issue.
"Host and Guest" is not so much interested in causes, as in the ways malice becomes ritualized. It's about the violation of an all-powerful taboo -- giving comfort to the enemy. In the Caucasus Mountains, Joqola, played by Paata Tsikurishvili, befriends another hunter, Zviadauri (Irakli Kavsadze), while both are pursuing a deer. (The staging of the hunt, with members of the Tsikurishvilis' Synetic Theater company playing trees, swaying gently in the breezes, is an enchantment in itself.) The men forge a bond in a moment of unusual decency: Each has decided not to kill the other.
When Joqola invites the stranger to his home, the village has a nervous breakdown: Doesn't he know Zviadauri is from the tribe with which Joqola's tribe has been locked in a dance to the death? (The religious root of the warfare is vaguely hinted at; Joqola's people are Muslim while Zviadauri's apparently are Christian.) Paata Tsikurishvili, with a noble bearing and a face that could have been carved by a medieval stonecutter, is no rebel at heart, and yet his Joqola is offended at the thought of having to retract his gesture of civility, even after his kinsmen threaten to cast him out.
"We have a saying," Joqola tells Zviadauri. "A guest will be the last to die."
In "Host and Guest," this isn't exactly the case. Slaughter inevitably leads to more slaughter, a bloodbath that eventually overwhelms Joqola, his new friend and countless others on both sides. It's not that this story has not been told before in myriad ways. Indeed, the play takes on a timeless feel, dealing as it does with such classical themes as honor and revenge. But it's the imaginative strokes that make it a singular theatrical event.
The Tsikurishvilis, whose Synetic Theater recently was spun off from the Stanislavsky Theater Studio, received their training in Georgia, where several of the production's other leading performers and designers also are from. Though the set is dark and spare -- a scaffolding of ladders and loose fabric by Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili that functions as mountain, church and cottage -- the stage is nevertheless fully transformed. Not for a moment do you doubt that you are in a blighted, faraway place.
Irina Tsikurishvili, who also plays Joqola's wife, Aghaza, has splendidly drilled the 13 members of the cast. In sequences as intimate as the dervish-like dance of friendship between Joqola and Zviadauri, and as broad as a climactic battle, there is a lyricism that serves as a counterpoint to the barbarity. In a marvelous scene, Zviadauri is captured by the villagers, who immobilize him with the poles that in an earlier scene represented trees. Every murder in "Host and Guest," in fact, is carried out as an elaborate rite -- no such thing as natural causes in this world -- and even in a suicide on a mountaintop the choreographer finds a beautiful physical expression for the truly horrific. (Vato Kakhidze's swelling, stirring score, supplemented by Georgian folk music, adds much to the grandeur of the story.)
We don't get to know much about the individuals who populate this woebegone land. The villagers are defined chiefly by their collective will to destroy their adversaries. Even Joqola remains a shadowy figure; why he chooses this moment to assert his ethical code, to doom himself in the eyes of his comrades, is one of the drama's mysteries.
It's the much wider canvas that Reed and the Tsikurishvilis want us to appreciate, to understand how an entire globe can be broken down into tribal units, each exhibiting self-protective urges that are as self-defeating as they are everlasting. Even the title suggests a kind of eternal balance in the equation, enemies whose fates are inextricably linked.
But "Host and Guest" is not a message play. It's a mature and vivid portrait, in words and pictures, of a tragic flaw in the dominant species on earth. The play ends very much where it began, with an encounter between potential enemies in the wild. Will they be the ones to break the cycle? The creators of this spellbinding evening, one imagines, are not holding their breath.
Host and Guest, by Roland Reed, based on a poem by Vazha Pshavela. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili; choreography by Irina Tsikurishvili. Sets and costumes, Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili ; lighting, Colin Bills; music, Vato Kakhidze. With Kakhi Kavsadze, Jonathan Leveck, Armand Sindoni, Catherine Gasta, Greg Marzulo, Phillip Fletcher, Cynthia Lin, Katherine Miles, John Milosich, Brad Minus. Approximately 90 minutes. Through Dec. 1 at Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. Call 202-265-3748 or visit www.sts-online.org.