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When onstage acts of violence are convincing, it takes only a few smears of red paint, not gallons of fake blood, to thoroughly disturb audiences. This lusty month of May, two local companies have achieved that low-gore, high-payoff feat in beautifully rendered productions of ancient horror stories.
Synetic Theater’s Titus Andronicus and Pointless Theatre’s Rite of Spring are significant achievements in dance theater not only because they freak the hell out of people, but because they represent a landmark cross-pollination of the two companies. Pointless’ publicist Scott Whalen is featured as Lavinia’s ill-fated lover Bassianus in Titus, and its co-artistic director Patti Kalil served as props designer for the show. Several Synetic veterans are making their Pointless debuts in Rite of Spring, including choreographer Kathy Gordon, who demonstrates that her work should be on as many D.C. stages as possible.
And yet, despite sharing personnel, each work has a distinct aesthetic, with Pointless turning to the world of ballet for a narrative and using puppets, mime, and the music of Igor Stravinsky, while Synetic reinterprets Shakespeare through movement, Goth costumes, and original sound compositions.
Heavy eyeliner, black chokers and flashes of red have never looked out of place on Synetic stages, but for the first time in this, the theater’s 13th dialogue-free production of a Shakespeare play, there are actual Goths. For those unfamiliar with Titus Andronicus—beyond its reputation as “the play where a bunch of people get their hands chopped off”—here’s the storyline, as it has been truncated by Synetic: In the later days of the Roman empire, the titular general (Philip Fletcher) goes to war with Tamora (Irina Tsikurishvili), queen of the Goths. He conquers her people and lets his soldiers chop the limbs off her oldest son, at which point we see that aforementioned red paint smeared across Tamora’s face. Meanwhile, back in Rome, two brothers are tussling over who’s in charge. Bassianus loses out to his brother Saturninus (Dan Istrate). Once crowned, Saturninus falls prey to Tamora’s (empowered) feminine wiles, as demonstrated by a seductive tango.
Tsivkurishvili, who also choreographed the production, wraps her knee around Istrate’s thigh and he lifts her straight up to the throne beside him. Her surviving two sons go free as well. But Tamora is still fooling around with her Goth lover on the side, and her sons are hardly model stepchildren. Lots of people die, and there’s a clever who’s-your-daddy subplot that causes trouble before the show is over. (Tsikurishvili’s hip-rocking choreography for women in labor sure looks a lot more fun than getting an epidural.)
It seems worth mentioning that I managed to go 18 years as a professional theater critic without ever seeing a Titus; my first visual introduction was clips of the Anthony Hopkins film version when Shakespeare Theatre Company honored director Julie Taymor a few years back. I’ve never been a fan of gratuitous violence, Shakespearean or not. I’m a cancer survivor. There’s a nine-inch scar bisecting my stomach and a five-inch metal plate in my shoulder. I have an idea of what it feels like to have your arm cut off, and I have no need to watch actors pretend they do.
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But if I can make it through this Titus so can you. It’s an early Shakespearean play, from when the Bard was less of a poet and more of a kid writing a slasher flick. Without the dialogue, it’s easier to feel empathy for the characters, including Tamora as a woman trying to make it in a man’s world, Titus as a general working for an emperor with troubling tastes in women, and Lavinia (Irina Kavsadze) as a girl in the wrong place with the right guy for her at the wrong time.
Some violence is portrayed as ritualistic, but there’s beauty in those rituals, particularly when long streamers of red are unfurled across the stage to represent Lavinia’s missing vocal chords and hands. (Goth and Roman costumes are by Erik Teague) There’s some sexy humor too, like the tango, and when Istrate and Tsikurishvili make much ado of eating what looks like a cherry tart but is actually a forerunner of Mrs. Lovett’s “meat pies” in Sweeney Todd.
The background score is, as always, by resident composer Koki Lortkipanidze. The bells and whistles available to electronic composers have improved greatly in the past decade, and so have Lortikpanidze’s scores; this one sounds more like an actual orchestra than ever, with few awkward segues.
It’s still a far cry from Stravinsky, however.
Although Rite of Spring appears on symphony orchestra schedules year after year, this masterpiece was conceived as dance theater. While composing, Stravinsky corresponded with artist and ethnographer Nicholas Roerich, who was researching ancient peoples of the Caucuses as he designed the sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes, the renowned avant-garde 20th century dance company.
Rather infamously, there was a riot when Rite debuted in 1913, though it’s never been clear whether Parisians objected to ballerinas not wearing toe shoes; the riotous music, with throbbing basses and ever-changing time signatures; or the subject matter: a virgin dancing herself to death. Or maybe some combination of the three.
In the ensuing century, many directors, choreographers, and visual artists have created Rites of their own. The most famous (and best), is by the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, who depicted harrowing gang violence against a dancer in a red dress. The most recent opened in England on May 11 and features five naked dancers rolling around in six tons of clay. It appears to be a total mess.
This Pointless production may be among the best Rite’s put together by committee since Serge Diaghilev commissioned the original from Stravinsky, Roerich, and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. More importantly, the Pointless committee included women. The adapters smartly honored both the original ballet and the Bausch version, while still creating something entirely new. What was a Gandalf-looking old guy in Nijinsky’s ballet is now a crone-like puppet operated by three of the dancers and beautifully integrated into the action. All of the performers are women, a fluid mix of Synetic veterans and Howard University dance students. Gordon’s choreography retains the circular patterns for the ensemble, but adds far more sideways stutter steps for the solos, plus a general sense that the women inhabiting the barren landscape are performing for themselves, not as a spectacle for men. The original Pocahontas-looking costumes have been replaced by baggy earth-tone knit jumpsuits from designer Frank Labovitz (who often works with larger theaters) that flatter everyone onstage as they move. There’s still an onstage sacrifice. You know as soon as Deidre Staples—an airy dancer with surprisingly strong jumps—carries a (puppet) baby onstage that all will not end well, and sure enough, when the famous throbbing basses cue up (boom boom BOOM boom, boom boom BOOM boom), Anne Flowers climbs to the top of the village well, points to the baby, and rocks her cradled arms back and forth to Stravinsky’s foreboding rhythm.
A few special effects have been added to the recording, including noise from a violent thunderstorm that will only end if blood is shed. That’s obvious. A few mime gestures are puzzling, and the program notes are a bit heavy-handed as they spell out the story’s relevance to contemporary environmental justice. Like most good works of art, however, all viewers will get the general idea of what’s going on, and there’s plenty of room for interpretation. The key takeaway is this: Washington is oozing with talented performers and dance-theater creators. Please keep the reinterpretations of classics coming. Feel free to keep skipping the dialogue, and the fake blood.
Titus Andronicus runs to May 27 at 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. $15–$60. (703) 824-8060. synetictheater.org.
Rite of Spring runs to May 27 at 4618 14th St. NW. $30. (202) 733-6321. pointlesstheatre.com.