Sunday, July 4, 2010

Othello - Performance Log (July 2010)

Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili
Synetic Theater
Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC
July 3, 2010

Here’s a conversation starter: the best production of a Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen cut every single line of the text.

That’s right. No words. Synetic Theater, which just completed a run of Othello at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, employs the “art of silence,” removing all speech and redirecting not just the story, but the rich textures and imagery of Shakespeare’s language into dance, dumb show, music, video projection, and visual motif, or what Synetic refers to as “non-realistic theater.” The result is a stunning visual and aural experience, powerfully evocative and emotive, but also paradoxical.

Can, after all, a production without a single line from Shakespeare’s text be considered a Shakespeare play? The adaptors here, Paata Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger don’t claim that it is. The program clearly indicates that their work is “based on” Shakespeare’s play. But unlike something like Otello, Verdi’s opera that takes Shakespeare as its starting point and becomes Shakespearean but not Shakespeare in its new medium, Synetic’s Othello seeks to transform the purely Shakespearean experience – language – into a new form: text becomes subtext, dialogue becomes dance, and characters’ inner landscape of emotion, motivation, and psychological turmoil become motion and visual representation. [To get some sense of the production's approach to motion and dance, watch the YouTube "trailer."]

Take Iago (Philip Fletcher, Irina Tsikurishivili, and Alex Mills). In some ways, Synetic’s approach makes this Iago’s play. In Shakespeare, it’s never clear why Iago decides to play the villain (he gives conflicting reasons, and to a Jacobean audience it wouldn’t have mattered because they would have seen him as a representation of the Vice character, malicious for its own sake). But here, his jealousy at being passed over as Othello receives promotion is palpable. Tsikurishvili sets his anguish in front of a triptych of mirror-like mylar panels, behind which are two more Iagos. A struggle follows as the Iagos begin to grapple with each other and throw themselves through the panes, each attempting to be the central figure, and finally all three are present. It’s as if the conflicting emotions within him drive him insane, until his murderous personality is multiplied and physically present.

This sense of menace is magnified throughout by the production design, from the black, white and red color scheme to the almost industrial music and sound (composed by Konstantine Lortkipanidze) to the set, which takes a page from German Expressionism. If you’ve seen the disorienting angles and warped perspective lines of Robert Weine’s 1920 silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (above), then you have some idea of the broken planes and tilted triangles Anastasia Rurikov Simes puts together for this Othello.

Tskurishvili also makes wonderful use of the handkerchief. In Shakespeare, it is the central proof in Iago’s false accusation of Desdemona, a single piece in an elaborate seduction. But Synetic makes it much more. We see Othello (Roger Payano) receive it from his mother as she dies after being beaten to death by a slave driver. We see him give it to Desdemona (Salma Shaw), knowing it is the most precious thing he has. And we see it wind its way through the plot against him, until it takes on a final fatal role, replacing the pillow that ends Desdemona’s life (a striking scene that is graphic not in its explicit violence but in its visual depiction of Othello’s act).

There are so many beautiful visual touches that allude to Shakespeare’s verse: the paper flower that represents Rodrigo’s desire for Desdemona, the amorous satyrs that comically suggest Iago’s version of Othello’s courtship, the grainy black and white videos of groping lovers that project Othello’s deepest fears, the color red as a component only of the Iagos costumes, the small candles in Desdemona’s room, extinguished one by one by Othello.

Without the language, Synetic Theater’s Othello is not, in the end, Shakespeare. But this production achieves what adaptations rarely do – it informs Shakespeare as much as it is informed by Shakespeare. And it is more a work of art on its own than a derivative effort. Its beauty of movement, and sound, and visual expression matched, for me, that transcendence which I find in the best of Shakespeare’s verse.

This Othello’s language may not be English, but it speaks.

Logged by Randall

photo credit: Irina Tsikurishvili, Philip Fletcher, and Alex Mills as Iago; photo by Graeme Shaw.

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