After a brief but successful stay in New York, "Host and Guest" is back on home turf. If anything, the work has become, in the two years since its debut here, a more disciplined and arresting statement about the madness of ethnic hatred.
The 85-minute production, fluidly staged by Synetic Theater artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili and his choreographer wife, Irina, bestows a balletic eloquence on a bloody, age-old theme: the unending cycle of violence brought on by religious intolerance. Aided by Roland Reed's economical text, Vato Kakhidze's wrenching score and Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili's cunningly primitive set design, "Host and Guest" is a superlative example of Synetic's daring and artistry.
Synetic revived "Host and Guest" for entry this summer in New York's International Fringe Festival, a showcase for works on risky topics and small budgets. The show garnered admiring notices there and is now playing for six weeks at the Rosslyn Spectrum. If you are unfamiliar with Synetic's unique repertory, all in a theatrical style that is equal parts passion and precision, "Host and Guest" affords an ideal introduction.
Several of the original cast members -- most notably Catherine Gasta, Irakli Kavsadze and Irina Tsikurishvili -- are back for this engagement, and their performances seem even more self-assured than before. On the evening I attended, Greg Marzullo, a Synetic veteran, substituted for Paata Tsikurishvili in the leading-man role of Joqola, the Muslim peasant who with a simple act of hospitality ushers in a terrible new chapter for the people of his mountain village in the Caucasus. Possessed of presence and vocal power to spare, Marzullo is a worthy alternative to Paata, conveying the chivalry and tragic stubbornness of a man of unswerving integrity.
The story, based on a work by the 19th-century poet Vazha Pshavela, who like the Tsikurishvilis was a native of the Republic of Georgia, unfolds as simply as a folk tale and proceeds with the unsparing inevitability of Greek tragedy. While on a deer hunt -- evoked movingly by cast members playing the swaying flora and by Gasta portraying the prey -- Joqola befriends a hunter (Kavsadze) from another village who is in need of shelter for the night. Joqola offers him a bed in his house.
When the neighbors in his village learn of Joqola's act of kindness, they are enraged: Doesn't he know the man he harbors, Zviadauri, is a Christian and even worse, a man implicated in the murder of, among others, Joqola's brother? The play is about the intense suffering that ensues when a man adheres to a personal moral code that runs counter to the deeply held prejudices of an easily inflamed community.
The climactic battle between the men of Joqola and his friend's villages is rendered with seamless craftsmanship. The rituals of warfare -- the arming of the fighting men, the horseback ride into combat, the accounting for the dead -- are dramatized with a stylized efficiency. That the denizens of the two villages are played by the same actors helpfully blurs the distinctions between the towns and makes the roots of the conflict all the more inscrutable.
A second viewing of "Host and Guest" reconfirms many of its strengths -- in particular the accent on sinewy movement and the physical grace of the ensemble, enhanced by recent additions to the company such as Miguel Jarquin-Moreland and Anna Lane. A revisiting also throws into sharper relief a shortcoming: the director's tendency to prolong a moment for melodramatic effect. Too often, actors are isolated, silent-movie style, in spotlight, their faces frozen in a scowl or a frown. The gestures not only seem heavy-handed, they also slow an otherwise sleek and effective narrative.
The characters of the Synetic production may have exotic-sounding names, but the lethal score-settling at its core is as familiar as this morning's front page. "Host and Guest" is Chechnya, Gaza, Kashmir, Londonderry, East Timor. Depictions of ancient bloodletting can feel far too relevant for comfort.
Host and Guest, by Roland Reed, based on a poem by Vazha Pshavela. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili. Sets and costumes, Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili; lighting, Colin K. Bills; composer, Vato Kakhidze. With Armand Sindoni, Phillip Fletcher, Anna Lane, Jodi Niehoff, Nicholas Allen, Mike Spara, Geoff Nelson. Approximately 85 minutes. Through Oct. 16 at Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington. Call 703-824-8060 or visit www.synetictheater.org.