Amy Nice remembers the encounter vividly. A gymnastics coach from the former Soviet republic of Georgia had walked into a conference room of her Washington law firm with a dramatic-looking young couple in tow. Nice had helped the coach become a permanent resident of this country, and now he had come to ask the lawyer, an immigration expert, to do the same for his recently arrived daughter and son-in-law.

The daughter did not say much, but the son-in-law, a wiry young man with dark eyes, was eager to speak, even if his English was rudimentary and heavily accented. "I'm telling you, Miss Amy," he implored. "All I need is a chance."

Nice had heard many such pleas over the years, but this one seemed more urgent, and she felt compelled to offer her services free of charge. "He was the 'American dream' sort of guy," she recalls. "He was all about, 'I'm going to do this. How do we do this?' "

The meeting took place in 1997, and given the way things would turn out, it's not surprising that it stuck in Nice's mind. The couple, Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili, would indeed get their chance; within a few years, they would establish themselves as singular sensations in the theater. Their physically demanding performance style, honed in a troubled nation half a world away, would improbably make them fixtures on the theater map of Washington.

Their work, a fusion of dance and mime, classical and expressionistic theater, has earned them a devoted local following. In collaboration with the Russian-born director Andrei Malaev-Babel, their troupe, the Stanislavsky Theater Studio, would become an acclaimed outpost in a city not ordinarily considered to be in the vanguard of more experimental performance. It is a measure of the tiny company's outsize impact on Washington theater that it regularly vies successfully for honors with the region's powerhouses: The Tsikurishvilis accounted for a total of seven nominations for this year's Helen Hayes Awards -- equal to the number garnered by Studio Theatre, for instance, and one more than Woolly Mammoth's take.

Yet despite the accolades and the glowing notices their productions often receive, the Tsikurishvilis (pronounced Zee-koor-ish-VEE-lees) are at a difficult juncture in their theatrical lives. Stanislavsky, its founders say, is deeply in the red and in dire need of outside financial help at a time when foundations and other potential donors are scaling back. Though such Stanislavsky productions as an adaptation of Dostoevski's "The Idiot," a wordless "Hamlet" and an original play, "Host and Guest," have received rapturous reviews, the five-year-old company is virtually unknown outside the Beltway; the troupe has never taken a production to a theater festival, let alone for an extended run in another city.

At the same time, the company is undergoing an identity crisis: It has split in two artistically. Malaev-Babel directs his own productions, and the Tsikurishvilis, with their own newly created troupe-within-a-troupe, Synetic Theater, stage theirs, all at the 125-seat Church Street Theater. It was the Synetic spinoff, in fact, that scored the seven Helen Hayes nominations, for its productions of "Hamlet . . . the Rest Is Silence" and "Host and Guest."

"Right now, we don't know if there's another season," says Paata, 36, who acknowledged that Synetic's current play, "Salome," would not have gone on were it not for a donor who agreed to underwrite the show, which cost about $35,000.

Theater, especially the more experimental kind, rarely blazes a trail to Fort Knox. Still, this eccentric Russian-Georgian-American troupe -- is there another one like it in the country? -- seems to be engaged in a struggle for survival. "It's a very difficult time for everybody, so I don't want to say we're the only ones in need," says Malaev-Babel, who presided over a small theater company in Moscow before coming to the United States. "But, of course, we are suffering. Right now it is like, 'Out of 100 bills, which three do we pay?' "

The company's predicament, compounded by the odd divisions of labor (Malaev-Babel and the Tsikurishvilis now rotate use of the stage), has not been lost on those around them. Some company and board members say privately that Malaev-Babel and Paata rarely speak anymore and that there is a desperate need for some basic business savvy, some kind of marketing plan. But even with the hardships, the actors and the board seem so devoted to the enterprise that they're inclined to soldier on, even if the money situation is abysmal. "I get paid $25 per performance," says Greg Marzullo, who has the leading role of Herod in "Salome." "All of us are beyond broke."

For Paata and Irina, Synetic has become more than a day job. Their lives are completely consumed by work, so much so that they've sent their 11-year-old son, Vato, to be raised by Irina's parents, who now live in Ohio. Their 18-month-old daughter, Anna Nicole -- "a good American name," says Paata -- continues to live with them.

The struggle is particularly painful given the fact that as a creator of thoroughly original work, Synetic is coming into its own; "Host and Guest," the piece it offered last fall, was a stunning 90-minute tale of ethnic hatred, choreographed by Irina and told in a cascade of haunting images. Related through both words and lyrical physicality, and based on a Georgian poem, the play was a powerful commentary on the tribal hostilities flaring up all over the globe.

The piece was not only a coup de the{acute}a^tre but also a reflection of the couple's expanding ambition and sophistication. It wasn't too long ago, in fact, that the Tsikurishvilis, who live in Potomac, were existing virtually hand to mouth, performing skits and mimed playlets for audiences in Russian restaurants in Baltimore and Gaithersburg.

The jobs were of the just-scraping-by variety, taken on in the early years of their efforts to eke out a life here in the theater. In their home town of Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, Irina and Paata had limited career satisfaction, she as a classical dancer, he as a mime. In the Caucasus, it seems, they take the tradition of storytelling through movement seriously; for 13 years Paata was associated with the Georgian State Pantomime Theater. But he was impatient with the numbingly languid pace of institutional theater: "Rehearsal time was three years," he says. And he had, one might say, trouble keeping his mouth shut; ultimately he wanted to do more than pantomime.

Irina, now 31, left Georgia first, in 1995, to take Vato away from the unstable political situation in Tbilisi and live with her parents in the United States. Her father, Arnold Kvetenadze, a onetime coach of the Soviet Olympic gymnastics team, had immigrated to the Washington area to train young American gymnasts -- he's now at Ohio State -- and Irina got work as a dance teacher. At Irina's urging, Paata, who had been commuting between Tbilisi and Saarbrucken, Germany, where he had founded a mime company, joined her in Washington in 1996.

"When we got married, I promised we would work together and make a good life," Paata is saying, sipping coffee in a cafe around the corner from the playhouse. "I had in mind to do only one thing, to do theater."

In Washington, an idle Paata drove Irina to her dance classes during the week. Soon he was adapting pieces he had performed in Europe and was taking them to schools in the area. That led to invitations to present the work under the auspices of companies like Classika Theater in Arlington, where the couple met Malaev-Babel. "At that point," Irina says, "Paata and Andrei talked about opening our own theater."

Their initial collaborations were child-friendly: "Kashtanka," based on a Chekhov story, and "Miraculous Magical Balloon." Then, late in 1998, they presented a piece that put them on the map, "The Little Tragedies," four one-act verse plays by Pushkin. The evening featured "some of the most dazzling stage images to be found in a Washington theater right now," wrote William Triplett in The Washington Post.

"We were completely sure that nobody was going to come," says Malaev-Babel. "And we ended the run with sold-out houses."

On such long shots are theaters made. In the formative stages of those early productions, when Paata and Irina had mastered only a smidgen of English, the rehearsals were a little hard to follow for some members of the company. "At some points everyone would speak in Russian," recalls Catherine Gasta, a Philadelphia native who was cast in "Tragedies" and has been with the Tsikurishvilis ever since. "Forty minutes would go by and I would say, 'Okay, now what happened?' "

In the earliest shows, in fact, Paata learned his lines phonetically, not even fully comprehending what he was saying. "How I survived was, I knew perfectly subtext," he explains.

It was the intense concentration on physical expression that drew Gasta to the work, and it was that obsession with creating compelling stage pictures that would become the couple's hallmark. (Where spoken language was concerned, the Tsikurishvilis were a little skittish; even as their English improved, they remained self-conscious about their accents onstage.) "What attracted me was that there was this extra-special kind of movement in every production that they did," says Ina Milton, who loved the work so much that she became a member of the company's board.

In a series of productions, many of them adaptations of literary works -- "The Idiot," "Faust," "Don Quixote" -- the Tsikurishvilis refined their style. In rigorous sessions, they trained young American actors for the arduous dance routines Irina came up with; one can see the results in many of the extraordinarily fit bodies onstage. The actors call it the Synetic diet.

Over time, though, Paata became less and less enamored of the collaboration with Malaev-Babel, whose orientation was more text-based: Malaev-Babel had trained with disciples of Stanislavsky, father of Method acting. In 2002, the separation was formalized, with Paata and Irina establishing their sub-troupe. Malaev-Babel remains producing artistic director of the overall company. This season, each entity has produced two works. Malaev-Babel's "Filumena" and "The Seagull" were counterparts to "Host and Guest" and "Salome," which opened this week to mixed reviews.

What comes next is unclear. The company recently installed a development director, in an effort to revive foundation support, and a few volunteers are pitching in to try to help steer Synetic onto firmer financial footing. Malaev-Babel says he is in talks with the theater's landlord for a new three-year lease, and everyone just seems to be counting on riding the crest of goodwill. "I love what we are doing," Irina says, smiling soulfully at her husband. "We have beautiful cast."

The mix of dance and mime, classical and expressionistic theater that Irina and Paata Tsikurishvili have created at Synetic has earned them a devoted following.Irina Tsikurishvili as Aghaza in "Host and Guest." The play earned four Helen Hayes Award nominations.A cascade of haunting images: Irakli Kavsadze, left, Paata Tsikurishvili and company in "Host and Guest."Irina Tsikurishvili (with Greg Marzullo) in Synetic's wordless "Hamlet," which is up for three Hayes awards.Tsikurishvili in the title role of the current Synetic production of "Salome," with Catherine Gasta, right.