Synetic Theater reprises its riveting ‘Romeo & Juliet’

Synetic Theater reprises its riveting ‘Romeo & Juliet’

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It’s often said that successful relationships are all about timing, and Synetic Theater’s propulsive production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is entirely built upon that principle. The fair Verona where the troupe convenes is styled as the inner workings of a clock, with a giant pendulum swinging from the rafters and a gaggle of oversize gears, made from foam but painted to resemble tarnished brass, scattered across the stage. Wielded by cast members, the cogs become shields, revolving doors and spinning wheels of fate.

The star-crossed lovers may be trapped in a metaphor they can’t escape, but audiences are lucky to be stuck in a theater for 85 intermission-less minutes. Synetic’s original 2008 production of “Romeo & Juliet” elevated the young company from local oddity to Washington treasure. Co-founders Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili immigrated to the United States from Georgia in 1995, fleeing post-Soviet poverty and unrest. She was a dancer, trained by the same academy that turns out star ballerinas, he was already established in Eastern European movement theater, which combines movement with acting, music and mime. Since 2002, the company has mounted more than 90 shows, almost all adapted from stories in the public domain. A few feature dialogue, some have voice-over narration, many have no words at all.

Traditional theater troupes bring in new creative teams and concepts each time they revisit a classic. Synetic’s practice is more in step with ballet companies that pull the same sets and costumes out of storage, banking on nostalgia and casting changes to bring audiences back.

Synetic’s seamless and searing “Romeo & Juliet” should do just that, especially as it’s unclear where the company will perform next. JBG Smith, the Bethesda-based mega developer, is not renewing Synetic’s lease when it expires April 30, the theater company says, and “Romeo & Juliet” will be its last production in the former Crystal City movie theater that’s been its home for 15 years. A representative for JBG Smith said the company has no comment on the theater’s account or its plans for the space.

Synetic’s plan, executive director Ben Cunis says, is to become “semi-itinerant.” The company is inking deals to share other Washington-area arts spaces, including some that have reduced programing since the pandemic. However, Synetic will still need a dance studio where it can rehearse its movement-intense shows and offer year-round teen programming as well as summer camps for kids.

Several former teen company members are onstage in “Romeo & Juliet,” including Irina Kavsadze, who’s grown into a graceful and expressive leading lady. The original couple, Cunis and Courtney Pauroso, played up the lovers’ headlong rush, while Kavsadze and her Romeo, Zana Gankhuyag, opt for elegance. “Love is a smoke made from the fumes of sighs,” Romeo says in fully staged versions of the play, while Synetic emphasizes the line with an onstage fog machine and romantic duets.

Irakli Kavsadze (Irina’s father), reprises his role as the loving, morally conflicted Friar Lawrence, who, in Synetic’s production, also takes on functions of the Prince, apothecary and father figure for Romeo. More than some of Synetic’s other wordless Shakespeare adaptations, “Romeo & Juliet” assumes audiences have knowledge of the plot. There’s little indication, for example, that Romeo is banished for killing Tybalt, or that Juliet gulps a sleeping draft.

End of carousel

The trade-off is vigorous combat, an enviable masquerade ball and a sex scene that’s been seared on my retinas for sixteen years. Ensemble members hold a sheet in front of the lovers, while others illuminate their bodies by flashlight. What audiences see are silhouettes engaged in a shadow play of entwined hands and arched backs, sensual but not X-rated.

Note that Synetic’s shows are often appropriate for adolescents who would balk at two hours of Shakespearean dialogue. That’s true of “Romeo & Juliet” with one exception: The nurse (Janine Baumgardner) is portrayed as a no-nonsense lady-in-waiting rather than an indulgent nanny. Baumgardner is fabulous, but while on her message-delivering mission to Romeo, she’s forcibly kissed by Mercutio and one of his pals. Synetic would be wise to tone this down; Baumgardner seizes her girl power moment, but it is 2024, and most audience members recognize unwanted kissing as sexual assault. A little ribald teasing would be plenty to incite the rough-and-tumble street fight that proceeds Romeo and Juliet’s clandestine exchange of vows.

The clock ticks toward tragedy once the couple weds, propelled by a score from Konstantine Lortkipanidze. His music mixes Radiohead-esque rock with Arvo Pärt-inspired classical minimalism. There’s no Prince to announce “all are punished” when Romeo and Juliet are found dead in the Capulet crypt. Instead, a percussive heartbeat goes silent like a vital signs machine fading out. Fans have to hope that Synetic Theater, unlike the doomed lovers, will rise again someday soon.

Romeo & Juliet, adapted from William Shakespeare by Nathan Weinberger. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili and choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili. Original music and sound design, Konstantine Lortkipanidze; scenic designs, Phil Charlwood; remount costumes, Alexa Cassandra Duimstra; lighting, Brian S. Allard; additional sound design and engineering, Paata Tsikurishvili and Brandon Cook. About 85 minutes. Through March 24 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. synetictheater.org.

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