My favorite love-at-first-sight moment in the Shakespearean canon is when Leonardo DiCaprio peers at Claire Danes through a gigantic fish tank, just as Des’ree croons “I’m Kissing You,” in Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet.
I’m not original; I don’t pretend to be.
My second-favorite love-at-first-sight moment is when Ferdinand (Scott Brown) first touches Miranda (Maryam Najafzada)’s palm in Synetic Theater’s production of The Tempest. She’s hiding underneath a benchless grand piano while her soon-to-be-lover crouches in front of the keys. He can’t serenade her, however, because not only would that be cliché, in this production, the disemboweled piano has been transformed into a fountain, and an onstage waterfall streams over the remaining ivories. He stretches his hand through the cascade and when she meets it, they marvel at the way strong and slender fingers can mesh together.
After Synetic first staged The Tempest in 2013, gushed about the iconic fountain scene while interviewing a Shakespearean director.
“That’s sounds lovely,” he said, testily. “But if I put Miranda onstage behind a waterfall, then no one in the audience will ever be able to HEAR THE DIALOGUE.”
Oh that’s right. The dialogue.
Synetic Theater stages wordless adaptations of Shakespearean plays and other classics, telling these well known stories through movement and music. The Tempest is my favorite, one of the company’s funniest and most beautiful productions. Now it’s back, even better than before, and once again performed in a giant, shallow pool of water. You’ll have to wear a poncho if you sit in the first four rows, so see this Tempest at your own risk.
Do see it. Because even though we are eternally grateful for Shakespearean lines like “what’s past is prologue” and “we are such stuff as dreams are made on” (both from The Tempest), the Bard gives us more than words to mine. That’s why ballets (like Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale) and some films (like Luhrman’s R+J) and Eastern European movement theater adaptations (like Synetic’s) remain valuable Shakespearean experiences.
At his peak-genius moments—like the meet-cute scene beneath the piano—director Paata Tsikurishvili finds ways to make Shakespeare’s meaning more clear than most conventional productions do. When Miranda meets Ferdinand, she is supposed to be seeing a man for the very first time, and be instantly smitten. She’s a teenage girl raised on a deserted island, having been banished along with her father 12 years hence. In Synetic’s 2019 version, it’s Miranda’s mother who lost her title and was cast out of Milan by a political rival.
The gender flip adds considerable weight to the love-at-first-sight moment; this Miranda hasn’t seen a guy since she was 3. And while yeah, sure, maybe she should get off Love Island and try dating other people, she and Ferdinand (who turns out to be of appropriately noble kindred) are destined for each other, moving as one of their own volition.
Choreographer Irina Tskurishvili stepped into the role of Prospera, and uses her considerable prowess as a dancer to stir up trouble. (Philip Fletcher previously played the role.) Whenever she and her attendant mischief-making sprite, Ariel (Alex Mills) are manipulating other inhabitants of the island—both resident swamp monsters and recently shipwrecked visitors from Milan—the power trip is conveyed through movement. Like when Prospera raises her magic staff and Caliban (Vato Tsikurishvili) is slammed against a wall, or when Mills plucks streams of water flowing from the piano, and the clowns, Trinculo and Stephano (Katherine DuBois Maguire and, on the night this reviewer saw it, Joshua Cole Lucas), jump in unison, like marionettes jerked around by a vengeful puppeteer.
All this synchronized movement requires the actors to keep careful track of musical counts in their head, just as dancers would, all while working in four inches of water. Performing this Tempest takes strength, coordination, and talent.
As good as the supporting cast members are, the remount succeeds thanks to Irina Tskurishvili’s moving performance as a mother and moral center, and the compassion Brown and Najafzada put into the roles of the waterborne lovers. When they dance together, Brown holding Najafzda just high enough so her pointed toes trace circles in the water, this show is pure Shakespearean magic, the stuff that dreams are made on.
To Oct. 20 at 1800 South Bell St., Arlington. $19–$65. (703) 824-8060. synetictheater.org.