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Startling, sensuous images are Synetic Theater’s stock in trade—Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili and their cohorts have been retailing joys and horrors with fabric and smoke and supple bodies for about eight years now, so it’s saying something that they’re still inventing surprises for critics to describe. With their new Macbeth, the most satisfying surprise is that the bones of Shakespeare’s blood-soaked story turn out to be pretty sturdy, even stripped of the flesh of their famous words.
That’s right: This 90-minute speed-read of the Scottish Play, a sort of darker sister to the widely acclaimed silent Hamlet the company will revive this summer, dispenses entirely with the toils and troubles, the out-damned-spots, and the sound and fury and still manages to signify plenty, courtesy of the Tsikurishvilis’ expressive choreographic vocabulary and well-drilled ensemble. The detailed opera-style synopsis in the playbill will help, of course, for anybody who comes to the show without even a passing acquaintance with the ambitious thane and his upwardly mobile missus, but I skipped it for the sake of experiment—and though I haven’t seen a fully staged Macbeth since sometime in 2004, the story’s themes and arcs came through with grim clarity.
For that, credit Synetic’s singular style, a fusion of dance and action and first-class mime that amounts to a language every bit as universal as music. Credit the music, too—mostly original compositions by Konstantine Lortkipanidze—because its whispers and its thunders alike help shape scenes as surely as the ebbing and flowing of the bodies onstage.
The Tsikurishvilis open their take on “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” with a little dramaturgical liberty: A prologue presents a trio of clerics—a shawled rabbi, a turbaned imam, a mitred bishop—making prayerful gestures over a darkened globe. Darker figures glammed up in the bondage chic that helped make Synetic’s Faust such a racy pleasure last season loom suddenly behind them, and before you can say fair is foul and foul is fair, the religious have been possessed, the world is out of joint (sorry, wrong play), and the action proper commences with the battle that starts Macbeth on his rapid rise. Religion can be a balm, this Macbeth points out plainly enough, but religion corrupted has been known to consume nations.
If that’s a notion that’ll seem a little pat to anyone who bothers with the daily headlines, more satisfying invention marks out the story’s familiar waypoints: A writhe of bodies for the witches’ cauldron, out of which nightmare prophecies are birthed. A masked and regimented tragicomedy of a banquet at which Banquo’s ghost makes his unwelcome appearance. (The wholly corporeal Armand Sindoni, lightfooted and loose of limb, makes that dread specter seem satisfyingly ethereal, as if Macbeth’s wild swings might indeed pass right through him.)
Style, as always at Synetic, provides telling accents: Swiveling flashlights “mounted” behind cupped hands are convincing stand-ins for sniper rifles, and Irina Tsikurishvili’s Lady M, who’s been tempted directly by the witches in this version, proffers not one dagger but a gleaming, slender pair—the better for her power-hungry husband (Irakli Kavsadze) to cross them abreast, pharaoh-style, once he’s murdered the sleeping king. A somber funeral shades into a stately coronation; Duncan’s burial shroud provides cover for a satisfying reveal of Kavsadze’s Macbeth, black tunic accented now with scarlet cuffs.
The reds keep coming as the blood keeps flowing, and soon there’s a dozen yards of crimson fabric drowning the stage; Kavsadze’s body language grows crabbed and animal as his Macbeth begins to coil himself around the ghastly knowledge of what he and his wife have wrought, and then the production comes fully into its own with a sequence that makes a compact and yet seemingly endless horror of the Macduff murders. Staged as a cinematic flashback that unfolds as Ben Cunis’ Macduff learns how Macbeth’s henchmen have slaughtered his wife and children, it’s unnerving confirmation that stylized, heightened violence can feel like a sucker punch to an audience numbed by a daily diet of the real thing.
If not every moment in this ambitious exercise resonates quite so sickeningly—the welcome-to-the-castle dances drag a bit, the hurrying-troops image looks like an aerobics class, and Anastasia R. Simes’ boxy black tunics do the company’s men no favors—the Tsikurishvilis nonetheless power through to a lyrical mad scene (with Lady M a haunted study in white) and a genuinely riveting finale as the famous forest makes its martial way to Dunsinane.
And that last is no small thing: Stage battles are tough to choreograph interestingly in any production, never mind when they’ve got to stand out in an evening that’s all movement, so the titanic blood and thunder of Cunis’ final confrontation with Kavsadze is something of an accomplishment. Like much of what’s best about Synetic, it’s fearlessly big, sensuously charged, a conscious flaunting of bodies and training and technique—and it fairly explodes off the stage.