'Romeo and Juliet'
by Carmel Morgan
November 25, 2011 -- Synetic Theater in Crystal City, Arlington, VA
The final installment of Synetic Theater’s three-part “Speak No More” Silent Shakespeare Festival was “Romeo and Juliet.” I admit that I was living in Washington, DC, when Synetic’s “Romeo and Juliet” debuted in 2008, but when I saw an advertisement for it, I balked. It sounded perfectly boring. Why would I want to see a Shakespeare play performed without words? Thankfully, later that same year I attended a mostly wordless Synetic performance of “Carmen” at the Kennedy Center, and I was hooked. You may have to drag people to see a Synetic Theater production the first time, but I guarantee they’ll go willingly after that! They offer a full physical theater experience that is nothing like anything else out there. Far from boring, Synetic’s highly creative performances leave you on the edge of your seat, mouth agape. It’s a theater company built on excellence in every aspect, and their consistently entertaining, visually spectacular style of drama continues to win fans.
When I walked into Synetic’s Crystal City theater for “Romeo and Juliet,” I did a double-take. I’m used to Synetic doing things a little differently, often a little darkly. Nevertheless, I wondered if I was in the right place. There was no balcony laced with ivy, no marble floors, no city square. Instead, the set, expertly designed by Anastasia R. Simes, consisted of larger than life inner-workings of a clock, including an assortment of giant rusted gears, springs, and a huge pendulum. This surprising, somewhat gothic set certainly piqued my interest.
As the play unfolded, I began to understand the significance of the clock’s gears. The tale of Romeo and Juliet involves a rapidly developing romance between the story’s two young lovers and also their untimely deaths. In Synetic’s version, the ever-present wheels of time seemed to bring home the point that Fate determined what would become of Romeo and Juliet long before their romance blossomed, and that such tragic tricks are likely to repeat in the future. Ensemble members stood holding colossal gears in front of their faces, sometimes keeping the lovers apart, sometimes moving the story along with a spin. In further playing with the concept of time, the stage became completely still when Romeo and Juliet first met, except for them. Isn’t that what falling in love feels like – like time slows to an almost full stop?
As the leads, Alex Mills as Romeo and Natalie Berk as Juliet exuded sweetness and passion. Based on other Synetic performances I’ve seen, I’d have definitely cast them as the star-crossed couple. Mills, in particular, has real star quality. As the lovelorn teen (for some reason a blonde in Synetic’s show), he grabbed not only Juliet’s heart, but the hearts of many in the audience. In addition to the theme of time, shown through the scattered clock parts, hands played an important role in Synetic’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Romeo and Juliet constantly joined their finger tips, twisted their hands, and petted each other’s palms with tenderness. When they were wed, a scarf tied around their hands sealed their marriage.
Philip Fletcher as Mercutio and Ryan Sellers as Tybalt reprised their 2008 roles, and their fight scenes amazed. Sellers, especially, let loose his fury and threw his body with abandon into the choreography. He showed frightening strength and fearlessness, and his raw physicality and pure aggression simply exploded on the stage. Sellers leapt like a panther, rolled like a ninja, and his eyes sizzled with intensity. When Tybalt lay dead, somewhat humorously, you could see his chest heavily rising and falling through his blood red shirt. That Tybalt was a bit breathless, even after death, was actually a great tribute to Sellers. One can’t help but admire the fierce training Synetic’s actors must endure. It seems that they are all gymnasts, martial artists, and dancers, as well as skilled thespians!
Irina Tsikurishvili, choreographer and wife of Paata Tsikurishvili, the founding artistic director of Synetic Theater, played Juliet’s nurse. Again, here was a surprise. Mrs. Tsikurishvili vamped about wearing a tight, bright green bustier, doting on Juliet, but also engaging in sexy games with the boys. She provided the primary comic relief in this tragedy, like a goofy fairy godmother. Hardly the old, frumpy sort one is used to seeing as the nurse! Yet another surprise was the appearance of composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze, who was tucked in an upper corner of the set, playing his ominous sounding original music from above. Fabulous lighting, by Colin K. Bills, echoed the theme of time. Curlicues on the stage’s carpet reflected a clock’s springs.
The masked ball provided one choreographic highlight. Males lifted their partners to shoulder-height and spun them parallel to the ground, round and round, at an impressive speed like a centrifuge. What an awesome thing to behold (and what a miracle that the dancers did not become dizzy!). The most stunning moment of “Romeo and Juliet,” choreographic or otherwise, was when the two lovers undressed and finally melded more than their lips. Behind a thin white sheet, the audience witnessed the couple come together. Dark shapes, lit from behind, tangled in erotic poses. Shadows grew and retreated and swirled and touched intimately in what would earn Synetic’s show at least an R rating.
While you lose something, of course, by omitting Shakespeare’s words, there’s a lot to be gained from telling his stories through movement. You will not come away from Synetic’s “Romeo and Juliet” with pretty words stuck in your head, but you will doubtless come away with powerful images, which may prove to be longer lasting. At any rate, the Synetic Theater delivers all the emotional wallop of Shakespeare – an impressive feat when you consider the silence.
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