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It’s movement, not dialogue, that carries Synetic’s ‘Host and Guest’

Based on a 19th-century narrative poem, this revival of the theater’s 2002 production is at its best in wordless scenes of battle and hunting

Vato Tsikurishvili as Zviadauri, left, and Dan Istrate as Joqola in Synetic Theater's revival of “Host and Guest.” (Johnny Shryock/Synetic Theater)

It’s ironic that in Synetic Theater’s revival of its 2002 work “Host and Guest”— a movement-rich rebuke of humankind’s propensity for violence and hatred — the most compelling moments evoke such inclinations. The dialogue can sound stiff in this tale of warring clans and courageous loyalty; scenes of mourning can feel ponderous. Yet in agile, fast-paced, ingeniously choreographed sequences, slaughter and vengeance shimmer into life.

Battles erupt in blazes of staves, shields and bodies. When retribution-minded warriors don armor, their pulling, strapping, shouldering gestures constitute a riveting dance. The flaying and dismembering of a deer, a task shared by two hunters, unfolds as a vigorous pas de deux. Such feats of physicality, executed by virtuosic and apparently fearless performers, have long been Synetic’s signature and strong suit.

But in contrast to the wordless adaptations of literary classics for which the company is especially well known, speech has a place in “Host and Guest,” adapted by playwright Roland L. Reed from a 19th-century narrative poem by Vazha Pshavela. Directed by Synetic artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili — who hails from Pshavela’s homeland of Georgia — this iteration of the internationally traveled “Host and Guest” sometimes does right by dialogue. In the central role of Joqola, a hunter who shows hospitality to a stranger from an enemy clan, with terrible consequences, Dan Istrate deploys fierce movement, but also speaks with spot-on passion.

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As Joqola’s wife, Agaza, Irina Tsikurishvili (also the choreographer, and founder of Synetic with her husband, Paata) handles grieving gestures and heartfelt remarks well enough. But other talk in the show lands with a thud. Vato Tsikurishvili, son of the Synetic founders, deserves praise as the show’s fight choreographer, and as Joqola’s guest, Zviadauri, his physicality is dazzling. In a striking scene of wine-fueled revelry, for instance, Zviadauri and Joqola leap and hang in the air like apostrophes.

But Zviadauri’s brief poetic speech about mountainside hunting sounds wooden. Elsewhere in the cast, Philip Fletcher, playing a murderous fellow named Mula, allows melodramatic hokeyness to creep into a ceremonial incantation at a cemetery.

Overall, the mountain and other story locales fare better than the words: Phil Charlwood’s spare scenic design, anchored by a spiky scaffolding peak, accommodates spectacle while striking a suitably ominous note. Sometimes the performers themselves conjure the landscape, as when, with branchlike staves in hand, they transform into a wind-swept forest prowled by a graceful deer (Maryam Najafzada). Carolan Corcoran’s costumes, Brian Allard’s dramatic lighting, Vato Kakhidze’s moody music and Irakli Kavsadze’s sound design all add atmosphere. (Sets, costumes and production design have been updated for this revival.)

Still, with its single-minded focus on humankind’s habit of violence and vendetta, “Host and Guest” feels blunt in a way that Synetic’s best shows have not. That bluntness registers despite — and perhaps because of — the show’s unarguable timeliness in a moment of bitter divisiveness and war. This iteration of “Host and Guest” wears its relevance as weight, occasionally buoyed by inspired visions of butchery.

Host and Guest, play by Roland L. Reed based on Vazha Pshavela’s poem; direction, Paata Tsikurishvili. With Irakli Kavsadze (also assistant director), Nutsa Tediashvili and others. About 80 minutes. $25-$65. Through Oct. 2 at 1800 South Bell St., Arlington. synetictheater.org.

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