Through Feb. 16
1800 South Bell Street, Crystal City, VA
$35 and up (some discounts available)
Ordinarily when we meet “Twelfth Night’s” Viola she’s just been washed ashore after a terrible ship wreck. Not in Synetic Theater’s roaring ‘20s take on the Shakespeare comedy.
Here, the yacht is still very much afloat with onboard flappers and their beaus enjoying a wild Gatsby-esque party. Viola (Irina Tsikurishvili) and her twin Sebastian (Alex Mills) are the main attraction, a magnetic sibling dance team not unlike the elegant young Fred and Adele Astaire, only more double-jointed. It’s a great party, but everyone ends up under water just the same.
Once on dry land — alone and in a strange place — Viola disguises herself as a man and goes to work for Duke Orsino (Philip Fletcher). As Cesario, Viola’s newly assumed name, she carries letters between the duke and the object of his unrequited passion Olivia (Kathy Gordon). But the gender-bending plot thickens when Olivia is instantly smitten with Cesario. Viola, in turn, falls for Orsino. What’s more, there are zany subplots involving more unrequited feelings and a devastating prank. Billed as a comedy, “Twelfth Night” boasts many moments of hilarity but there’s sadness too (Viola believes her twin has died at sea). Director Paata Tsikurishvili doesn’t neglect those darker moments — he gets the balance just right.
Fittingly the movement-based company whose players almost never utter a sound has set the 10th addition to its Silent Shakespeare series on a silent movie stage — the type that would later be converted into “sound stages” with the advent of the “talkies.” The action unfolds as a silent comedy directed by Olivia’s household fool Feste (Ben Cunis) with the help of his clownish cinematographer sidekick Fabian (Vato Tsikurishvili) who both step in and out of the action, playing their parts in the story when needed. This works wonderfully particularly since Feste is an almost omniscient presence in the original text.
The production draws broadly from the voiceless genre: sepia-toned subtitles on a movie screen, frantically paced comedy, lots of physical comedy and even the old pie-in-the-face bit. But the scenes most reminiscent of the silent cinema era are those with Viola/Cesario. It’s Tsikurishvili as the resilient cross-dressing heroine who shines most brightly. With an economy of movement, brilliant attention to detail and expressive face — all reminiscent of Chaplin’s iconic bowler-wearing little tramp, she recreates the best of silent film.
An early scene in which Tsikurishvili’s Cesario gets acquainted with Orsino (played wonderfully as a schmaltzy lothario by Fletcher ,who is gay) has the feel of a true silent comedy. It’s especially well thought out and executed. Her scenes with twin Sebastian (out actor Alex Mills) are also memorable, ranging from high spirited to wistful. The talented cast nicely assays the supporting stock characters including Gordon’s vampy Oliva; the lush, Sir Toby Belch (Hector Reynoso); and an over eager college boy, Sir Andrew Aquecheek (Dallas Tolentino). Irakli Kavsadze is perfect as the solemn yet ridiculous butler, Malvolio.
In addition to playing Viola, Tsikurishvili is also the production’s choreographer. Like all Synetic productions, movement affects the mood and emotion deeply and often instantly. Here it’s during the shipwreck when partiers who seconds ago were dancing the fox trot, Charleston and athletic Lindy Hop (all new to Synetic), are suddenly deep underwater, moving slowly but beautifully in a quest for survival.
Phil Charlwood’s set is a functional amalgam of ropes, pulleys, rolling cameras, big lights and a moveable screen. And Kendra Rai’s costumes are spot on — white dinner jackets and glittery above the knee dresses. Especially good is Olivia’s dramatic mourning weeds — her stylish black dress and long veil bring to mind the many bereft young (and not so young) women who turned up at the funeral for ‘20s heartthrob Rudolf Valentino.
Synetic’s “Twelfth Night” closes by flashing the play’s most famous line across the screen: “If music be the food of love, play on …” And with that the cast — led by Tsikurishvili — erupts into a big, exuberant dance number inspired by the infectious beats of jazz great Gene Krupa’s “Swing Swing Swing.” It’s the kind of big number you’d expect to see in a hot production of “Anything Goes” or “42nd Street.” Not your typical Synetic fare, but they nail it. And to make no mistake it’s them, the company drops some of their own high flying acrobatic moves into this treat of an upbeat curtain call.