April 14, 2011 at 2:38 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Silently stunning

‘King Lear’
Through April 24
Synetic Theater
At Landsburgh Theatre, 450 7th St, NW

The kingdom is a sandy strip of beach backed by bombed out buildings, and its aging monarch and his vicious court are all clowns.

For his latest installment in the company’s “Silent Shakespeare” series, Synetic Theater’s artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili reframes the bard’s tragedy “King Lear” as a tragic farce whose characters look as if they might be on loan from an especially spooky circus. Instead of wearing red rubber noses, they paint on dark circles and a deathly white pallor.

Greg Anderson as the King of France and Chris Dinolfo as gay son Cordelio in Synetic Theater’s current production of ‘King Lear.’ (Photo by Graeme B. Shaw, courtesy of Synetic)

Without a sound (other than a moody musical score and a few grunts, groans and screeches), the terrifically talented ensemble anchored by Irakli Kavsadze as Lear relies on nonstop, dynamic movement and mute but potent acting to retell the story of the old king who loses his mind after dividing his kingdom between two of his three daughters, foolishly basing the division on just how far they will go in flattering him. The words aren’t missed.

Staged by Tsikurishvili and choreographed by his wife Irina (who does double duty as Lear’s most savage offspring Regan) the cohesive, well-oiled production lucidly unfolds. Reading the synopsis prior to show time is helpful, but truly there isn’t a confusing or clunky moment in the 95-minute, quickly paced show. As always, Synetic ingeniously replaces text with action. For instance, rather than flatter Lear with flowery speech, Regan and her sister Goneril (the wonderfully deadpan Ira Koval) compete for their father’s favor by battling it out in a manic dance off.

The sisterly duo is a truly evil but entertaining pair. Styled like a punk schoolgirl crossed with a demented Raggedy Ann, Regan is a smirking, coke-snorting little monster. Though smoother, Goneril with her outsized eyes and down-turned mouth is no less malignant. And the sisters’ mutual love interest Edmund (played with a devilish athleticism by gay Synetic vet Philip Fletcher) proves equally ruthless in his pursuit of wealth and power.

Prolonged battle scenes give some of the cast an opportunity to show off their massive tumbling skills. Ben Cunis as Edgar leads them in incredible daring leaps and acrobatic feats. Dallas Tolentino does a wonderful sprinting in place bit where he appears to be flying through the forest hurdling fallen trees and spring boarding from rocks. His gravity-defying vertical leaps are simply incredible.

Now and then, Synetic takes liberties with its source materials. In this adaptation, Lear’s only honest daughter Cordelia is replaced by a good gay son — Cordelio (perfectly played by Chris Dinolfo in a tiny dunce cap and tight pants). After his sisters spy him in a hot clinch with his boyfriend, they out their brother (by painting his lips bright red and making him wear women’s rhinestone earrings) in front of the king. Lear reacts badly, disinheriting and banishing his only son. Eventually Cordelio reunites with his father, but in typical old school fashion the gay character bites the dust, not by his own hand but swinging from a noose nonetheless.

The show is beautiful. Synetic’s stellar design team have come together to create a haunting, splendidly conceived production. In the director’s notes, Tsikurishvilli cites filmmaker Federico Fellini as his inspiration for using clowns “to color an absurd world,” but the set, costumes and general feel indicate other influences including Tim Burton films and Picasso’s saltimbanque paintings. Scene after scene, the audience is bombarded with enduring tableaus. Whether it’s the defeated sad clown Lear chasing after a fluttering butterfly or the evening’s final moment when cast members stand in half light with colorful balloons tethered to their necks, these images aren’t soon forgotten.

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