Twelfth Night, Arlington, Va.

Synetic Theater cleverly updates Shakespeare's comedy to the Roaring Twenties.

Choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili

Adapted by Nathan Weinberger

Synetic Theater, Crystal City, Va.

Jan. 9 – Feb. 16, 2014

Synetic Theater’s brand of physical theater emphasizes speechless Shakespeare. For this adaptation of “Twelfth Night,” the company advanced the setting to the Roaring Twenties, inclusive not only of flappers but also silent film and the specter of Charlie Chaplin. It is a clever approach for a favorite Shakespearean comedy.

Before the audience was fully seated, Feste (Ben Cunis) and Fabian (Vato Tsikurishvili), two clowns who, it turns out, are part of the play’s silent-film crew, breach the fourth wall and engage the audience. First they wave and then they initiate responsive clapping. Audiences in large urban areas (Crystal City is part of the greater Washington, D. C. area) are use to such antics, but from an experimental group like Synetic, one expects more innovative interaction.

The proper, lights-down opening provided satisfying slapstick, acrobats and contortionists, and metaphoric handling of props. Throughout the 90-minute program, use of moving doors provided a comic element — initially one of the clowns with great girth, where he stores various props, cannot get through a door. Eventually the clown opening the door solves the problem by moving the entire doorframe so the fat clown can walk around the door. Later Viola (played by Irina Tsikurishvili) disguised as the boy Cesario (the disguise is very Chaplinesque with baggy pants and bowler hat) and in the employ of Duke Orsino (Philip Fletcher), is repeatedly shown the door as (s)he tries to deliver Orsino’s love note to Lady Olivia (Kathy Gordon). As this sequence repeats, a door is moved into place for Cesario’s exit, punching up the unspoken phrase “shown the door.”

A favorite scene, the shipwreck of the vessel carrying Viola and her brother Sebastian (Alex Mills), is preceded by the fat clown pulling a model ship out of his pants and “sailing” the boat to a waiting aquarium where the toy ship is plunged into the water nose down. Immediately the full cast embodies the chaotic action of the wrecked vessel and are knocked from their feet and roll synchronously on the floor.

Briefly, the story concerns a duke chasing a woman in mourning for her brother when an unprotected shipwrecked girl, who believes she has also lost her brother, arrives in town. She dons men’s clothes to hide her vulnerability and gets hired by Duke Orsino, whom she falls in love with. The wrinkle is that Lady Olivia, who has many men wanting her affections, falls in love with the disguised girl.

While bits of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” text periodically are projected in the format of silent-film slides, the audience needs to know before the lights go down what Shakespeare’s story is and who the characters are to keep up with the action. Furthermore, seeing the slides and being able to read the white text on a black background was challenging for many in the audience, as an overheard man who could see read aloud to his seatmate.

What will be felt in the bones are the joyful dance scenes that include Lindy Hop, jitterbug, and tango.

Washington, DC
Karren Alenier is a swing-dancing poet whose opera, Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, with composer William Banfield and New York City’s Encompass New Opera Theatre artistic director Nancy Rhodes premiered in New York City in June 2005. She writes a monthly column for scene4.com entitled "The Steiny Road to Operadom." Read about her forthcoming book on opera—The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas at alenier.blogspot.com.