How is it that Shakespeare works so well without words? Shouldn’t be such a surprise—Mr. Prokofiev made a pretty stirring ballet out of Romeo and Juliet, after all, and the story still works in the opera house, even if you don’t speak ze French—but somehow we still wonder, each time they venture into silent-Shakespeare territory, how the Synetic Theater folk will manage sans text.
Fear not: As with their brilliantly broody Hamlet and their thrillingly malevolent Macbeth, the director-choreographer team of Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili manage damn well, conjuring a Verona populated by sleek, sexy young beasts and a central pair of lovers so fresh and frankly passionate you fall for the story all over again.
Start with the set, a gloom-shrouded clockworks that makes physical what’s always been true: Romeo and Juliet are cogs in an unforgiving machine, pawns for parents caught up in a politics that’s both small-town petty and city-state critical. A push, and that giant pendulum starts to swing, and to the sound of an intriguingly industrial mix of samples and low-pitched strings from Konstantine Lortkipanidze. He performs live on a platform up there among the gears as the play begins its swift series of coincidences and missed connections. The sad end of this star-crossed love, as the production makes abundantly clear, has always been about fatally bad timing.
Timing, of course, the Synetic troops have always had, and in spades, but this time around they’re if anything sharper, better drilled, exuberantly alive and exquisitely attuned to each other. The formalized figures of the Capulet ball dissolve into cunningly choreographed chaos after the Montague boys invade; the taunting of Marissa Molnar’s saucier-than-usual nurse becomes a bouncy, bawdy knees-up in some back-alley tavern; the vicious brawl that leaves Tybalt and Mercutio dead looks here like a pack of Olympic gymnasts pitted for their lives against Cirque du Soleil acrobats in some half-gravity environment—that’s how fearless, how fast, how goddamn airborne it seems.
And that Mercutio: The first half of the play often belongs to the brazen scene-stealer, and so it is here. Even without the Queen Mab speech and the gasp-inducing sexual double-entendres, without “prick love for pricking” and “a plague on both your houses,” the dashing rogue figures prominently in the Tsikurishvilis’ vision of the story. They’ve made the part a showcase—and a bravura one—for company veteran Philip Fletcher, who’s turning in a performance so comic, so physically fearless, and so commandingly virile that you might be tempted to suggest a third name for the title.
Except that Ben Cunis and Courtney Pauroso turn out to be pretty wonderful, too, and that the Tsikurishvilis keep finding gestures—with hands intertwined, with backs arched one across another, with light and with shadow and occasionally with something as simple as one red flower—to remind you of phrases you’d forgotten you knew. How do they keep making Shakespeare work so well without words? They understand the passions that underlie them—and they’ve got a dazzling gift for communicating those.