IT TOOK a September walk in the warm afternoon sun to tame the hair-raising chills I felt after attending a dress rehearsal of "Dracula." There's no avoiding spine-tingling sensations during Synetic Theater's 90-minute distillation of this well-known legend. But like all of the unique company's work, it's pure physical theater, pure storytelling and a cinematic experience imparted with living, breathing bodies.
"The theater must move people, their souls, their hearts . . . as much through physical expressions as through words," says artistic director and Synetic co-founder Paata Tsikurishvili about his aesthetic. As he reminds us, it was Shakespeare who said "suit the action to the word, the word to the action."
That master of language, Shakespeare, might seem an unlikely ally of this proponent of physical theater or movement theater or kinetic theater -- whatever you choose to call it -- but Tsikurishvili speaks lovingly of the Bard, his Russian accent enchanting with its sometimes dropped articles and cushioned consonants. In his homeland of Georgia, he says, Shakespeare is beloved and oft-produced on the nation's stages.
"In Georgia we have less Russian roots than you think," he says. "We have [a] different language, we have different writing. Even during Soviet Communist life, the Georgian theater always was different, very physical."
When Tsikurishvili first came to America in 1995, he initially worked with the District's Stanislavsky Theater Studio. Later, he joined forces with the Arlington-based Classika Theatre, which was founded to present children's theater in the Russian tradition. But his dream was to lead an American company, with American actors: "I didn't want to have just an ethnic company here." Today, he works with about 20 performers from both Synetic and Classika, 90 percent of whom, he notes, are American born.
For his first fully realized production at Synetic, in April 2002, Tsikurishvili, with his collaborative partner -- and wife -- Irina, a choreographer and dancer, took a daunting risk. Their wordless "Hamlet," subtitled "the rest is silence," became the talk of the theater community for its bold decision to jettison Shakespeare's beloved poetry, telling the tale purely through movement. Critics and audiences raved, and the scrappy little theater had found its artistic raison d'etre.
"Dracula," too, is natural material for Synetic. It's based in part on the Bram Stoker novel but also on the career of Vlad Tepes, the 15th-century Transylvanian warrior prince whose fondness for impaling his enemies on stakes in the town square earned him the nickname Vlad the Impaler. This horrifying practice became a central motif for Tsikurishvili, who plays Dracula, and it frames the stage production.
"We love to turn the stage [into something] and invent it, to make dreams a reality," Tsikurishvili says. All that blood and gore arriving in time for Halloween doesn't hurt either. Still, don't expect such Hollywood cliches as the bat-winged cape and pots of stage blood. Synetic's version aims to be a "Dracula" for our times, prescient, blood-curdling and edge-of-the-seat suspenseful.
"There are links to today's life," Tsikurishvili says. "It's timeless, because blood, love, war [are] so related to each other. I thought that's a great piece for us because the vocabulary of transforming ourselves on the stage and telling the story allows us to [transform]."
He adds: "And we are in war. It's hard to believe [because] we don't see war up close. It feels different when you are there. I had my experience with war with the collapse of my country and civil war. . . . When you really hear shots, gunshots, machine [gun] shots, it's so different psychologically. In the war as a warrior, you do many things that are unbelievable."
"Dracula" is also on stage Sept. 16 through Oct. 23 at Rosslyn Spectrum Theater, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington. 703-824-8060.