Synetic Theater is so frequently lauded for its innovative physical performances, you could imagine the troupe getting comfortable in the (mostly silent) theatrical language it’s innovated since forming in 2001.
But Synetic is still expanding its onstage vocabulary, which should be evident in its “New Movements” series launching this week. “I think that people are going to see something from these Synetic actors that they haven’t seen before,” says Ben Cunis, the director Genesis Reboot, a play he co-wrote that begins previews tomorrow.
The intent of the series is twofold. One purpose is to bring to the D.C. area what Cunis describes as “outside influences”—-physical theater from other countries. In March, Synetic will present the second installment of the series, Light In The Darkness, conceived by the Prague-based physical movement company, Tantehorse.
The other aim is to cultivate the work of new artists in the style of Synetic Theater. Founded by Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili, the company aims to be the foremost physical theater in America. To the tune of 79 Helen Hayes nominations, 21 wins, and a slew of rave reviews, Synetic has earned recognition for its synthesis of nonverbal narration, dance, and original musical compositions. “As much as, to some people, Synetic seems like a pretty new company with some new ideas, we’ve been around for a while,” says Cunis. “Paata and Irina have developed a particular community…a very particular style of theater and movement expression. Now we’re trying to reset the boundaries of what can that be. What else can we do with it?”
Genesis Reboot is a reimaging of the biblical tale of creation. An angel and a demon do battle in a modern-day Eden featuring a mechanical tree of life. Each figure seeks to revise the fall of man and the conflict between Cain and Abel according to their visions of humanity. Cunis wrote the play in collaboration with his brother Peter, and in many respects, created it along with the composer and the cast. But the true genesis of Genesis is Cunis’ apprentice-mentor relationship with Paata Tsikurishvili. He joined Synetic as an actor in 2007 to play Macduff in Macbeth. “In the rehearsal space in Synetic, the actors do have a good deal of input on the creation process itself, and I think that he and I just sort of clicked,” Cunis says.
Cunis began directing in 2007, when he presented Last Tango With Rosie duringthe company’s Blackout Series. “I had this little three-person piece that I’d been working on. I said, ‘Paata, I have a piece I want to do.’ And he just sort of said, ‘Go ahead. You don’t have a budget, but just make something.'” That isn’t to say Paata Tsikurishvili’s guidance has been casual. Cunis has been groomed to be a mainstage director with gigs as a choreographer for Dracula and King Arthur, co-adaptor for King Lear and King Arthur, and assistant director for King Arthur and Othello—-among other Synetic assignments. “[Paata Tsikurishvili] and I had been talking about me doing something like this for a while,” Cunis says. “I’ve been on that front of the table enough that this year he said, ‘Let’s let you have a shot at it.’ “
Seeking the input of a collaborator not present at rehearsal—-Cunis’ Massachusetts-based brother——might be the production’s most significant departure from Synetic’s method. The company rehearsed and revised Genesis Reboot over an unusually long nine and a half weeks. “You might think with that type of process, [Peter] wouldn’t be included in the organic nature of things here. But in a way it’s actually very valuable to have someone who looks at the text from the perspective of purely text… Sometimes he’ll have input on the overall structure of the script that I wouldn’t see…being ensconced in the bubble of the rehearsal room.”
Will audiences respond to Genesis Reboot like they’ve embraced the work of Cunis’ mentors? “The cool thing is that they’ve let me be in charge of this piece. I don’t have them constantly looking over my shoulder,” Cunis says. ” I won’t say it’s my piece. Because it’s the cast’s, and mine, and my brother’s, and the composer’s. Everyone else has contributed. But we’ve built something ourselves here.”
The play begins previews tomorrow at 8 p.m. at Synetic Theater Crystal City, and opens on Saturday.