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The person who accompanied me to Synetic Theater’s characteristically spry adaptation of King Lear maintains, I think soundly, that the play is about the erosion and ultimate failure of language. So perhaps there’s more reason to try this one sans nouns, sans verbs, sans adjectives, sans everything spoken, than to muzzle other Shakespearean tragedies.
This seventh of Synetic’s mute Shakespeares adopts a Frederico Fellini-inspired clown motif that gives the play’s notion of a world as indifferent to human misery as it is to human endeavor (“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods”) a tear-stained makeup face. The other filmic touchstones are more pop—Lady Death wears a Bride-of-Frankenstein fright wig (or is that a Helena Bonham-Carter fright wig?), while Phil Charlwood’s bombed-out set and Andrew Griffin’s lighting design, with its occasional reliance on flashlight-equipped “rifles” (they’re canes, actually), evoke any number of futurepocalypse-set films and music videos from the ’80s.
That it’s as visually hypnotic as it is is a lifesaver. Full disclosure: Lear’s complicated binary plot has always defeated me eventually. Talk or no talk, it makes no difference. Whittled to a lean and fleet 95 minutes, the tale of two vengeful daughters and one vengeful bastard son moves like an action film, carrying you along through sheer kineticism. Is that a word? We don’t have time for second guessing! What I know is that every time I tried to flick my eyes down to the plot synopsis in my program, director Paata Tsikurishvili gouged them out and—-no, no that’s what Regan, one of Lear’s two very bad daughters, does to Gloucester. Tsikurishvili immediately yanked my gaze back stageward, I meant to say, flooding my vision with energetic chases and fights and haunting visions of death.
Maybe it was at least partially out of concern for the actors’ safety, given the show’s high incidence of leaping and tackling, that Charlwood has covered the stage in what looks like kitty litter. But it also allows for some indelible images, as when Philip Fletcher’s Edmund connives through his next move by pushing two white busts through the sand like beached ships. Better than Powerpoint! This made me think of still more ’80s videos—-specifically, Peter Gabriel’s Claymation shorts for “Big Time” and “Sledgehammer.”
Sorry, what were we talking about? Ah: One major deviation from Shakespeare text here is that Cordelia, Lear’s good daughter, is Cordelio here, a gay man. (In the earliest known version of Lear, 500 years before Shakespeare’s, it was Regan and Goneril’s husbands who conspired to overthrow the king moreso than his own offspring, so there’s precedent for the gender-role-reassignment.) When Lear bequeaths to Cordelio a larger share of his kingdom than Goneril and Regan get, the two sisters out their brother, leading to his banishment. Goneril (or Regan—-I had trouble telling which of the two coke-snorting trollops was which) tosses a flower onto him as one would a coffin being lowered into the Earth.
As with all Synetic shows, this one is full of lithe, fibrous bodies executing feats of uncanny poise and athleticism. Appropriately, the most moving performance comes from Irakli Kavsadze in the title role. He’s older, of course, but also rounder than anyone else on this great stage of fools. It matters not. In grace and stamina, he matches them step for step. And in capacity for suffering, it was never a contest.
Synetic performs King Lear at its theater in Crystal City to May 8.