If you want to know why Synetic Theater has been nominated for 13 Helen Hayes awards for its productions last year, go see Antony & Cleopatra. Now. Everything this robust and vibrant company is beloved for is here on stage at the Lansburgh’s beautiful proscenium, as part of an alliance with Shakespeare Theatre that I hope means more Synetic productions at the Penn Quarter space. Their glorious athleticism, sensual energy and biting humor are all here, framed by what founding artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili calls their “art of silence.”
The characters of Antony and Cleopatra are full of lust – for life, for power, for each other. It’s a play highlighting the contradictory battle between masculine and feminine desires inherent in both sexes, and at its heart is the human ambition to seize the moment even at the risk of total loss.
Stakes are pretty high here, as director Paata Tsikurishvili makes clear by adding a prologue to the actual Shakespearean plot – the meeting of Caesar and Cleopatra, their ambition no less than to rule the entire known world together, uniting East and West. As they stand together, a map of the world splits up and swirls about them in an orgy of power. This is the ultimate gamble, player beware.
As the basic plot of ancient Rome and Egypt should be well familiar to audiences, this may be the most accessible of Synetic’s wordless Shakespeare productions to date (and if all you know is HBO’s Rome, you’ll do fine as well). Characterizations are strongly defined, starting with Ben Cunis as Antony and choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili as Cleopatra – each powerfully present and switching effortlessly between sinewy sexuality and forceful physicality. Tsikurishvili embodies Cleopatra in a definitive way for me, from her youthful power-grab to her jealous rage to the riveting moment she realizes all is lost. Cunis clearly marks Antony’s journey from second-in-command, his rising ambition at war with his loyalty to Rome. As fight choreographer Cunis also does an amazing job – the battle scenes are brutal, with actual sparks flying off swords as actors propel themselves through the air with frightening intensity.
A match for him is Philip Fletcher’s Octavian, both amusing and devious, whose vulgar duet with a Cleo effigy is a hilarious showstopper well contrasted with his cold grimness as he also gambles to win the world. And the remarkable flexibility of Alex Mills is again on display as a character perhaps best described as the serpentine spirit of Egypt itself, a golden demi-god or demonic familiar to Cleopatra, whose motivations are unclear and potentially malevolent.
So many gorgeous images are on display here – red gloved assassins stamping Caesar to death, dead soldiers floating underwater at the battle of Actium, a shower of grain released from Egypt’s death to Rome’s renewal. The production design may be the best for Synetic yet – Anastasia Rurikov Simes has set, costume and props strongly defined in an almost Art Deco world (I really want Cleopatra’s red and black dress, a perfect illustration of her lust for power and sorrow at its loss. ok, it’s just plain stunning as well!). Colin K. Bills’ lighting design creates clear separation between Rome’s harsh militarism and Egypt’s mysterious danger. And the sound design of Irakli Kavsadze and Konstantine Lortkipanidze (also original music composer) seamlessly supports the action.
I raved about last year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the multi-nominated productions, and I’ll continue to rave – this is a company bringing a high level of innovation and daring to the DC theatre scene, and we’re truly lucky to have them. Prepare to be transported to the ancient world for a night of wonder.
Synetic Theater’s Antony & Cleopatra
Now thru February 28
Harman Center for the Arts: Lansburgh Theater
450 7th Street NW
Washington DC 20004
Tickets 202.547.1122 or online