Twelfth Night, directed by Paata Tsikurishvili for Synetic Theater at the Synetic Theater, Arlington, Virginia, United States of America, 26 January 2014.
Reviewed by Katherine L. Bradshaw
A stunning interpretation of Twelfth Night sparkled and swirled spectacularly at the Synetic Theater in Arlington, Virginia. As the 10th installment of Synetic’s award-winning “Silent Shakespeare” series, this show combined intensely physical acting with a cohesive directorial vision – a wordless, Roaring 20’s-style adaptation. In the programme notes, Director Paata Tsikurishvili characterized the Shakespearian source text as both ‘beguiling’ and ‘baffling. His descriptors also fit Synetic’s production, which struck a delightful balance between bubbly vivacity and thought-provoking poignancy.
The staging immediately created a playful mood with its metatheatrical props and structure. Behind the proscenium arch, seemingly discarded tools and pieces of set littered the floor and walls. As we settled into our seats, two clownish figures in mime makeup (Vato Tsikurishvili’s Fabian and Ben Cunis’ Feste) appeared onstage. These odd personages quickly started a silent argument over some papers – dropping them, executing acrobatic twists or bends to pick them up, and generally making a mess of them. Typically, Synetic specializes in productions filled with visual spectacle, high energy, and creative music. This opening performance, on the other hand, looked like two cast members simply playing with old-fashioned slapstick humor for the audience’s amusement. So, while I laughed at the lively antics, I wasn’t quite sure how the preshow would fit with the play. But, when Fabian rolled out an ancient-looking movie camera on a dolly, everything came together. The papers were the script for a 1920’s-era silent film, like those of director Tsikurishvili’s ‘artistic heroes’ Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The stage represented the back lot of a studio. Feste and Fabian’s black-and-white makeup alluded to the black-and-white motion pictures of the period, and the cast’s wordlessness fit perfectly with the genre’s silence. Let the comedy begin!
Yet, this comedy contained some hints of tragedy within it. To quote Synetic’s dramaturg Nathan Weinberger, Chaplin and Keaton’s ‘need to make the world laugh…arose’ from sadness ‘underneath.’ Similarly, the production’s allusions to those entertainers’ films highlighted a duality in the Shakespearian story – humor intertwined with sorrow. The twins Viola and Sebastian (Irina Tsikurishvili and Alex Mills) first came onstage as a Vaudeville-esque pair of performers on a yacht. Wearing identical brown suits and bowler hats, they impersonated each other in an enjoyable comedy routine of simple magic tricks and impressive physical contortions. After this lighthearted sequence, the subsequent shipwreck of the yacht and separation of the twins completely changed the scene’s tone. We saw the fearful urgency in Viola’s underwater search for her brother and the heart-wrenching grief in her discovery of his washed-up bowler hat. As she sat down and wept for her brother, all we could do was weep with her. Bubbles of laughter had yielded to waves of sorrow.
The entertaining, yet melancholy, nature of the twins clearly showed throughout the production. Viola’s journey primarily consisted of farcical adventures as she diligently worked to cheer up the self-pitying but endearing Orsino (Philip Fletcher) and desperately tried to avoid the attentions of the initially grieving but eventually amorous Olivia (Kathy Gordon). Director Tsikurishvili also ensured that we kept sight of Sebastian’s humorous experiences – confusedly struggling with an enormous map of Illyria, accidentally knocking down the prim and proper Malvolio, or just barely missing his disguised sister on an overcrowded bus. Although mostly comical, some of the siblings’ scenes contained startling pathos. One of the props – a full-length mirror’s empty frame – proved particularly powerful. Whenever Viola stood in front of the frame, Sebastian appeared on the other side. After mimicking Viola’s gestures, the reflection (or memory) stepped through the frame toward Viola. But, as she attempted to welcome her brother, he walked past without looking at her. Sebastian had a similar experience in front of the mirror frame, where he saw Viola in her costume from their previous comedy routine. These mirror scenes brought out the grief that each twin felt for the supposed death of the other, bringing an important balance to the 1920’s-style antics of the film-within-a-play.
The humor-sorrow duality became yet more pronounced in the prank on Malvolio (Irakli Kavsadze). The slapstick Sir Toby (Hector Reynoso) and crew (Dallas Tolentino’s Sir Andrew and Irina Kavsadze’s Maria, along with Feste and Fabian) in Synetic’s adaptation possessed an even greater capacity for amusing an audience than their Shakespearian counterparts. The group’s drunken revels fit into the culture of speakeasies, and they often enacted clownish fall-down-somersault-jump-up-and-do-it-all-over-again arguments over their one bottle of spirits. The audience loved every wacky minute. Additionally, the context of Prohibition made Sir Toby and crew’s hatred for Malvolio slightly more understandable; the hypocritical butler confiscated their liquor while enjoying a private drink himself. Thus, the ‘letter’ – a cleverly edited film reel – seemed all in good fun at first. However, director Tsikurishvili highlighted the joke’s nastiness when Malvolio found himself bundled into a straightjacket and subjected to various psychological torments. The most unnerving ordeal occurred when Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria disguised themselves as surgeons and removed a sponge, sized and shaped like a brain, from underneath Malvolio’s toupee. The nightmarish image was especially unsettling when seen in contrast with the performance’s playfully comedic moments. Indeed, during the reunion festivities in the final scene, the thought of the once haughty Malvolio, reduced to a shaking and pitiable figure by a cruel jest, remained in the audience’s minds.
But, when the play ended and the actors started dancing classic 1920’s steps to a Benny Goodman tune, we all had to laugh happily. The twins were reunited, each of the Shakespearian matches were made, and now the cast members were obviously just enjoying themselves. In short, Synetic delivered a comedy, tempered with just enough tragedy, that sent the audience out with an irrepressible desire to smile and dance.