The Synetic and Classika theater companies have made it official and joined forces to become Classika-Synetic Productions. The resulting aesthetic will be geared toward Synetic's Paata Tsikurishvili and his cinematic, movement-oriented approach to staging.
Last season Tsikurishvili struggled to keep his tiny company afloat after a split with Andrei Malaev-Babel and the Stanislavsky Theater Studio. So he turned to Classika. Both he and his choreographer wife Irina, who are from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, had worked at Classika with Malaev-Babel, a Russian emigre, in 1997 before the three formed the Stanislavsky.
"Remember me?" Tsikurishvili recalls asking Classika's managing director, Alyona Ushe, after everything fell apart with Stanislavsky last year. Any ill feelings from the earlier parting of ways were apparently set aside. "Probably she saved our artistic life," he says.
At first, Ushe and her small staff handled Synetic's administrative tasks only. But Tsikurishvili says his production of "The Master and Margarita" went so smoothly under her administration that a merger seemed fated.
Says Ushe, "It made sense logically on both sides . . . [to] kind of fill in each others' needs, not only administratively, but artistically as well." It was, says Tsikurishvili, a "decision to come together and create a powerhouse."
In the new Classika-Synetic company, Tsikurishvili will be artistic director and will stage, and often star in, most main-stage productions and some of the children's shows. Ushe will run the combined companies. Irina Tsikurishvili will serve as choreographer and also a performer.
Classika's founding artistic director, Inna Shapiro, will take the title of founding director and will run the company's acting academy and outreach programs. She will not, at least during the coming season, direct main-stage shows.
Critics have not always been kind to productions at Classika, but have tended to praise work by the Tsikurishvilis and Synetic. But Shapiro, who acted for some 20 years in St. Petersburg, Russia, says Classika has built a loyal audience that understands what she has tried to do. She trusts they'll go along for the ride. She acknowledges that Tsikurishvili "has more of a visual approach [while] I was doing it in exactly the Russian Stanislavsky way. . . . The idea was to do with American actors, in an American city, Russian theater. . . . I still like this idea." She says she expects to direct again, but not during this shake-out season.
So can she and Tsikurishvili share an artistic vision? Shapiro says their philosophies are "not identical, but in the same direction." Tsikurishvili says, "I go against rules and traditions. . . . I believe now I'm able to develop new ideas."
"The good thing, we're not in competition," Shapiro notes. "He's building his career. I'm helping around."
Classika-Synetic's next big decision is whether they can afford to accept an invitation from the off-Broadway Theatre Row space in Manhattan to perform for a six-week residency in the late fall. Stay tuned.
The company's season opens Friday with a reprise of Synetic's 2002 "Host and Guest" (Sept. 3-Oct. 16 at the Rosslyn Spectrum), which it performed to praise earlier this month at New York's Fringe Festival. The work is an adaptation of an epic poem by Vazha Pshavela, which tells of a Christian and a Muslim whose friendship ends tragically in a land torn by religious feuds. "Bohemians" (Jan. 7-March 6 in Shirlington) is an original movement piece by Tsikurishvili that he says is "about babies in diapers and pacifiers," played by adults. The third show will be his adaptation of "Jason and the Argonauts" (May 5-June 26).
Ushe says the company would like to move its main-stage productions to Washington, though family shows and classes would remain in Arlington.
An Appropriately Woolly Play
Woolly Mammoth Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz says he chose to premiere "Lenny & Lou" to open the company's 25th-anniversary season because Ian Cohen's play is "a nutty, comic, family-based kind of story" that embodies Woolly's mission to mix outrageousness and profundity. The play is at the D.C. Jewish Community Center's theater through Sept. 26.
"The most typical Woolly experience is where you're laughing and you know you shouldn't be," says Shalwitz. To do that, he says, "you want to approach comic material with as much emotional truth as you can."
Though he carefully spaces out acting roles because of his other Woolly responsibilities, Shalwitz couldn't resist taking on one of the Oedipal losers of the title, Lenny. In Cohen's eventful script, Alzheimer's disease, murder, sex and bananas all figure prominently onstage.
Acting with Shalwitz in a kind of mini-reunion are company members Jennifer Mendenhall, Nancy Robinette and Michael Russotto. Robinette has been directed by Shalwitz many times but hasn't shared a stage with him since 1986 (in Harry Kondoleon's "Christmas on Mars").
"I feel liked I needed to work at Woolly" again, says Robinette, who has taken several featured roles at the Shakespeare Theatre and at Studio in recent years. Her last Woolly turn was in 2001 as the amnesiac wife in "Fuddy Meers." This time her character has Alzheimer's. Even so, she says, "It makes me feel young to work here."
"Lenny & Lou" is definitely not Restoration comedy. The dialogue and actions get rather raw, and collegiality among cast members makes it easier to explore those themes, says Robinette. "To do this kind of material, you have to have a lot of trust," she says. At rehearsals, adds Shalwitz, "it really just seems there are a bunch of friends together, trying to work something out."
The production will be the play's world premiere, though it has been workshopped at Cohen's home base, the Lark Playwrights Group in New York. Cohen, a former actor who sat in on some rehearsals at Woolly, says he is "just thrilled at the commitment these actors made to my play."
Cohen took up playwriting after a piece he scripted for an acting workshop got a strong response. He actually has a 91-year-old mother suffering from Alzheimer's and says the randy, non-maternal character Robinette portrays is "like her [but] exponential to the 150th power. It's not really her, but it's based on her."
Cohen says he has had trouble ending "Lenny & Lou," offering a couple of finales to Shalwitz, who opted for the ironic, Chekhovian one it has now. "I can't tell you how hard it was to arrive at the simplest ending," says Cohen. "It's like that old story where you go around the world to come back to where you were."
* To mark its 25th-anniversary season, Woolly Mammoth is offering tickets to "Lenny & Lou" for 25 cents to theatergoers 25 and younger throughout the run. They'll be available at the door only to those with IDs -- two per person and not on Saturday nights. Call 202-393-3939.
* The Keegan Theatre will take its production of Sam Shepard's "True West" on the troupe's sixth annual Ireland tour, performing September through mid-October at stops including Galway and Dublin and in Northern Ireland. Artistic Director Mark Rhea and company member Eric Lucas will play the leads. "True West" will then run Nov. 18-Dec. 19 at the Old Town Theater in Alexandria.