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BWW Reviews: Synetic Theater's Jazz-Age TWELFTH NIGHT - A Manic, Slapstick Romp

BWW Reviews: Synetic Theater's Jazz-Age TWELFTH NIGHT - A Manic, Slapstick Romp
Philip Fletcher as Orsino and Irina Tsikurishvili as Viola.
Photo by Koko Lanham.

Just when you were about to pack it in because of the miserable weather Synetic Theater has come up with a joyous, raucous celebration of love-and jazz-in its latest Shakespeare adaptation. Twelfth Night, perhaps the Bard's most beloved comedy, is realized here as a manic and slapstick-ridden romp through the Roaring Twenties. Featuring classic tunes from the early jazz era, director Paata Tsikurishvili has set the action in a silent-era Hollywood sound stage.

True to the spirit of the play, this film's producer/directors turn out to be bumbling clowns (Feste and Fabian of course, played with perfect timing by Synetic regulars Ben Cunis and Vato Tsikurishvili). Our fools, more Circus than Elizabethan, open the show with the usual audience-baiting schtick and have entirely too much fun staging the shipwreck that opens the action of the play. For the uninitiated, here's the plot in a nutshell: we have identical twins at the heart of the action, Viola and Sebastian, entertainers on a cruise ship this time, who find themselves the lone survivors of that wreck. They wash up on a strange Adriatic shore separately, and each is convinced that the other has perished. Irina Tsikurisvili, the show's choreographer, is her usual protean self in the lead role of Viola; not only can she bust a move on the dance floor she is also the perfect reincarnation Charlie Chaplin's tramp, innocently getting into and out of a whole mess of trouble. Alex Mills, as Sebastian, is a good foil and although he has less in the way of stage time makes good use of it.

Viola's story is, of course, the focus of the action: she disguises herself as a boy, hires herself out as a servant to the Duke Orsino (the amusingly clueless Philip Fletcher), and of course Viola immediately falls in love with him, her male disguise notwithstanding. As his servant "Caesario," Viola's main job is-guess what?-to carry the Duke's love letters to the haughty Olivia, a flapper-heiress in mourning for her brother's death. Olivia, among other tchatchkas, has a film projector and in typical narcissistic fashion replays her misery over and over again (because Synetic's ensemble performs the "film" live, this leads to some truly hilarious routines as the footage gets sliced, diced, replayed, etc.). But the comedy really kicks into high gear when Olivia falls deeply in lust-er, love-with Viola, and her attempts to seduce the servant-boy "Caesario" are one of the many highlights of the play. Kathy Gordon captures the vanity and sheer goofiness of Olivia, and her sense for physical comedy calls to mind a young Carol Burnett, star of the other smaller screen (that would be television, for you millennials out there).

Olivia hosts an incorrigible drunk of an uncle, Sir Toby Belch, who has been soaking up the proceeds from the expense account of a certain Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a young rich kid who like Orsino is smitten with Olivia. Hector Reynoso does a fine turn as Sir Toby, although without the wordplay Shakespeare so generously provided his wit is not as evident as usual. Meanwhile Dallas Tolentino, so memorable in this Fall's production of Dorian Gray, proves his comic chops as the hopelessly clueless Aguecheek. Usually portrayed as an upper-class twit, Tolentino has taken a page from the great silent comedian Harold Lloyd, and gives us Sir Andrew as a geeky college Freshman (a geek, not a twit - and yes, there is a difference folks).

The counterpoint to Toby and Aguecheek's mayhem is the petty tyrant of the house, the butler Malvolio, portrayed here as a prohibition-era pill who- truth be known-is no stranger to the bottle. When not lecturing Toby and Aguecheek about their morals, he discreetly raids his boss Olivia's secret liquor cabinet when nobody else is looking. Malvolio's ill humor and moralistic ways drive Olivia's household to distraction, and this sets the stage for one of the most famous comic revenge sequences in theatre history. Olivia's maid Maria (the spirited Irina Kavsadze) plots with Toby, Aguecheek & Fools to con Malvolio into thinking that Olivia is in love with him; she forges a note detailing instructions on how to dress, behave, etc. and Malvolio, needless to say, takes the bait hook, line and leather. He makes such a fool of himself-Olivia has no idea what has possessed him-that he is committed to an institution for his own good. The doctors who probe and torture him are, of course, none other than our usual suspects who gleefully (if meanly) teach him a lesson in humility. As Malvolio, Irakli Kavsadze steals the show nearly every time he enters; his stiff-upper-lip persona, which he tries to maintain no matter what, is priceless and this is what makes his, erm, courtship of Olivia that much more hilarious (his costume takes "cross-gartering" to an entirely new level).

The choice to set the scene in a silent film studio not only fits Synetic's house style; this Twelfth Night coincides with a long-overdue revival of silent film as a serious art form. Have a look at last year's Oscar-winning "The Artist" or more the recently-released "Blancanieves," a brilliant, modern version of 'Snow White' set in 1920's Spain, and you can see why stage artists would embrace the opportunity to work with this unique medium too. Phil Charlwood creates a 'sound-stage' set that frees the company to move a variety of set pieces hither and yon, while Igor Dmitry makes artful use of a projection screen. Kendra Rai embraces the era with period costumes for the main characters but gives herself free rein to complement them with traditional circus material, and her work on Malvolio's "courting dress" is as jaw-droppingly funny as it is memorable. Colin K. Bills outdoes himself by creating a lighting design that reinforces the illusion of 'film footage' with a live Synetic cast, and Konstantine Lortkipanidze's musical settings manage to capture both the real human emotions and the whimsy. This is a comedy, but what makes it work is the show's appeal to real human emotions and the pain and confusion that arise when our love gets mis-directed.

The action is broken up frequently by dance numbers, and this accounts for the show's nearly 2-hour running time; Shakespeare himself routinely interrupts the plot with popular tunes, and Paata Tsikurishvili's team has chosen a number of instantly-recognizable jazz-era tunes for the cast to dance through. True to form, Synetic has embraced dance crazes like the Charleston and the Jitterbug, and we get to see them compete with each other on the dance floor. This gives a new meaning to Orsino's famous line, "If music be the food of love, play on!"

Running Time: around 100 minutes, without intermission.

Performances are now through February 16 at Synetic Theater, Crystal City, 1800 S. Bell Street, Arlington VA. Tickets can be ordered by calling 866-811-4111 or logging into: www.synetictheater.org.

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Andrew White Choricius is the nom-du-web of a theater artist who has been involved in the Washington, D.C. scene in various capacities -- as actor, playwright, director, dramaturg -- for a number of years. Credits include Source, Woolly Mammoth and Le Neon Theatre. As a cultural historian and veteran of the Fulbright Program, he has devoted years of research to the performing arts of the Later Roman Empire (aka-Byzantium). In this bookish role he has translated, performed and published a variety of works from Medieval Greek. He holds a Ph.D. in Theater History, Theory and Criticism, and will soon be publishing his first full-length study on theater and ritual in Byzantium through a major university press in the UK. A Professor of Humanities, he currently teaches World Literature and World History in the greater Washington, D.C. area.


 
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