Backstage: Synetic Theater clowns around with Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’
By Jane Horwitz,
Paata Tsikurishvili reread “King Lear” and says he realized, “It’s a ridiculous play. Sometimes the dots are not connecting. Things are not making any sense. It’s already farce for me.”
So Synetic Theater’s artistic director decided to stage his movement-oriented company’s seventh “Silent Shakespeare” adaptation as a tragic farce and a homage to the legendary Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini (“La Strada,” “La Dolce Vita,” “81 / 2 ”). The show is at the Lansburgh Theatre through April 24.
Tsikurishvili’s vision of “King Lear” (choreographed by his wife, Irina, who plays Lear’s evil daughter Regan) unfolds in a post-apocalyptic world reminiscent of Europe after World War II, inhabited by silent clowns in surreal makeup.
“Imagine what’s going to happen if one day I walk outside and the taxi driver is a clown, the bus driver is a clown . . . everybody is a clown,” Tsikurishvili says. “That’s how I tried to create the farce — a ridiculous approach. I put Fellini’s influence in my mind. I put Shakespeare’s influence in the play’s structure . . . fused them together, and it cooked in my head and that’s what I got.” He wove in modern family issues, too: Lear’s youngest and most beloved child is now a boy, Cordelio, and is secretly gay. Lear’s wanton daughters Regan and Goneril snort cocaine.
Irakli Kavsadze, a founding company member and, like the Tsikurishvilis, a native of the Republic of Georgia, plays Lear. When Paata Tsikurishvili assigned him the role, he says he was haunted by a brilliant Lear they had both seen back in Soviet-era Tbilisi. He also worried that at 41, he was a little young to play the part.
Kavsadze, like the rest of the cast, created his own clownish makeup, which he says helped him find his own Lear.
“Makeup — too much makeup . . . very bright, very grotesque. [But] at the same time, makeup covers your face,” Kavsadze explains. “You have to [act] twice or triple more from inside, to feel and show what this is. It comes from your mind, from your heart, and then it travels to your face.”
It was Tsikurishvili’s job to help Kavsadze forget traditional approaches to “King Lear,” as well as the great performance they both saw in their homeland. “It took time for me to delicately, nicely, destroy stereotypes from his mind and the other actors’ minds. . . . For some reason, we all have impressions in a frame — Lear, that’s how he’s supposed to look,” the director says. “I like to destroy stereotypes because then it gives me a chance to find something.”
And to anyone who might say his approach is a cliche, Tsikurishvili notes what’s in the news. Look at Moammar Gaddafi, he says. “He looks like a clown. . . . It is farce. It is tragic farce.”
Staging Enda Walsh
Director Matt Torney remembers when he first saw a play by the envelope-pushing Irish dramatist Enda Walsh back in his native Northern Ireland.
“I saw ‘Disco Pigs,’ the original production, when it toured to Belfast. . . . It is one of the formative experiences that I had as a young theater artist,” Torney recalls. “People had very clear attitudes about what the theater is and what the theater does, and how the theater works. And then you see that. . . . It was urban, had dance music in it, these extraordinary performances, really physically aggressive. Though it was difficult to understand, there was a passion to it and a raw energy to it, and you were like, this is the sort of theater that I want to be making.”
Now Torney, 29, is staging two Walsh plays for Studio Theatre — “The Walworth Farce” (April 6-May 1) and “The New Electric Ballroom” (April 13-May 1). Based in New York, Torney divides his time between the United States and the Dublin-based Rough Magic Theatre Company, where he’s an associate director. This isn’t his first Washington project, though. He recently staged the musical “Improbable Frequency” for Solas Nua, which focuses full time on contemporary Irish culture.
Walsh wrote “The New Electric Ballroom” and “The Walworth Farce” to be in repertory together, Torney explains. “They’re mirror images of one another. Both plays share a structure and both plays share this idea that people are trapped in a room in which they have to tell stories over and over and over again. . . . One’s a father-son play and the other is a sisters play.”
Torney’s been working with the “New Electric” cast in the mornings and the “Walworth” cast in the afternoons. Because the plays hinge so centrally on the power of personal stories and storytelling, “I actually find I use anecdotes from each rehearsal room to help illuminate the other play. . . . As an artist, to be able to work this way is extraordinary, because you can really see day-by-day how these plays speak to one another, how stories can affect the acting, can affect the revelation of character.”
There are echoes of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter in the two plays: Beckett in “The New Electric Ballroom,” in which middle-aged sisters perpetually relive a moment of sexual awakening and betrayal from their youth; and Pinter in “The Walworth Farce,” in which a father and the two sons he keeps more-or-less hostage replay the saga of how they came from Ireland to a miserable life in London. But, Torney notes, Walsh is “not just paying homage. He’s taking these stylistic risks that these guys made in another time that were revolutionary and then going one step further.”
Characters in Beckett’s “Endgame” may be staring into an abyss, but “in ‘New Electric,’ they’re staring into an abyss in which there is a disco ball and a guy dancing in a blue suit and singing.” Pinter’s trademark threat of violence permeates “The Walworth Farce,” but Walsh’s play “has these moments of extreme comedy and silliness that suddenly become threatening.”
“These are not finite plays, you know,” Torney observes. “They’re not plays that you see and you ‘get.’ They’re not nicely tied-up stories. What attracts me to them as an artist is how rich they are. The dramatic situation is rich, the characters are rich. They’re very detailed. And I suspect that they’re plays that will live very much in the mind [of audiences] for a long time.”
Horwitz is a freelance writer.