Once Wild

…is a play by Word Dance Theater this weekend, May 3 – May 5.  I was privileged to attend a rehearsal a few days ago.  This turned out to be fortuitous as I was immediately impressed by the inventive narrative of the revolutionary Russia in the early 1920s.  Outstanding choreography, live piano, Russian folk music and poetry create a long-lasting impression.

The central story is of an American-born originator of a new dance form – Isadora Duncan, told through her adopted daughter and student, Irma (shared by actress Kimberly Schraf and dancer Ingrid Zimmer).  Cynthia Word’s Isadora is in the photo below (courtesy of Word Dance Theater).WDT_OW_Passage1  So graceful, as if a live twin of Nike of Samothrace :-)

Isadora was not the first Westerner to travel to Soviet Russia hoping to find a better world.  One well-known example before her was John Reed, who produced an account of the Bolshevik revolution in Ten Days That Shook the World.  Within Russia, young intellectuals also hungrily rushed to embrace the revolution, only to become deeply disillusioned in the end.  Much of that talent met a tragic end.  Poet Sergei Esenin (played by Philip Fletcher), whose life became connected to Isadora’s for several short, or so it seems, years, was no exception.  Esenin together with Anatoli Marienhof and Vadim Shershenevich founded imaginist (derivative from “image”) circle, a new literary movement.  Their stories were told through images evoked by certain words and expressions.  Sometimes it meant combining words in an unusual way.  The group believed that, over time, words were tagged with extra meanings, so they set out to unearth the original.  Marienhof’s Novel without a Lie is a wonderful read and the most truthful portrait of Esenin.

IMG_3117To majority of Russians Esenin is still the ‘most Russian’ poet.  However, he will probably remain little understood outside his language culture because the work of an imaginist can hardly be translated close to the original.  Through my own struggle to find or even work on translations of some of my favourite poems (beyond imaginist circle too, but including Esenin’s contemporaries – Alexander Blok, Aleksander Mayakovsky), I realized that even if all the words are carefully interpreted and cultural references explained, the images and emotions produced in a mind of non-native Russian speaker would be different from the ones produced in a mind of a Russian.  Not wrong, just different.  The power of combining metaphors, allegories, even array of sounds that individual words produce together is weakened.  So then another interesting question arises: Can we ever fully appreciate something expressed in a foreign language in a foreign cultural environment?  This issue is similar to an economic one of inarticulate, tacit, knowledge, which is the knowledge of a particular time and place, learnt only by doing, and which cannot be taught to someone who has no experience of these circumstances.  And this is why the multi-disciplinary works of art like Once Wild deserve special attention.  When several forms of art come together to ‘embed’ the viewer in a volatile 1920s’ Soviet Russia and follow the lives of two extraordinary individuals, I think it greatly enhances our experience.

Philip Fletcher, who plays Sergei Esenin, never fails in any role, it seems.  Esenin-types, who awe us with talent and who we can adore and hate at the same time, are especially difficult to portray, but rewarding when done right.  Very moving and real person emerges as a result of Philip’s extraordinary effort, and that is Philip’s acting signature.


Water Stage at Synetic

Synetic Theater has another specular show — Tempest (see website and trailer), which runs through March 24th.  The Shakespearean play set in water is a delight to watch.  The storm, the shipwreck, the creation of magic, not to mention the waterfall piano, which plays…. The first three rows get raincoats to keep dry, but mostly the first row gets in trouble.  This water play follows another memorable performance of King Arthur on a water stage several years ago.

To my knowledge, Synetic is the first theater in America to use water in their productions.   This was done before in the 1990s and 2000s, on a Russian (St Petersburg) stage in Lev Dodin’s Platonov, Chevengur, and Seagull, among others.  Also, quite interesting are productions by a Dresden-based group Derevo that used water in Ketzal, for instance.  Derevo, however, is a rather unique and complex concept, to say the least, and probably not for American mass consumption at this point in time.

In Dodin’s plays water creates an environment (as in a stifling atmosphere of fatality and emptiness, a black hole, a poisonous marsh and so on), but it is a part of a stationary landscape.  Derevo draws on water in a more holistic approach but the group has a very unusual concept of theater and way of living in general.  Synetic’s director, Paata Tsikurishvili, is doing something different and, in my opinion, very consequential for the American theater development.  Essentially, all three approaches can not be compared.  At Synetic, the action is embedded in water, and water itself is an actor.

Human :-) actors at Synetic are no less  amazing.  Philip Fletcher (Prospero) has wonderfully portrayed the noble wizard.  It is too bad one can’t change the plot of the play too much because I wish even more time were devoted to Prospero’s role, as Philip has a great presence on stage. He is a phenomenal actor, especially for physical theater because he combines grace, strength, and outstanding dramatic skills.

Philip has a very long list of awards and nominations, to name a few, for Iago (three-way split personality where Philip is one of three) in Othello, the portrayal of the Witch in Macbeth, and my absolute favourite — Behemoth — in Master and Margarita.

Now, the latter role deserves a separate note.  Master and Margarita by Bulgakov is quite a special novel to a lot of Russians.  Bulgakov’s black tom cat, one of the devil’s minions who so wittingly plays tricks on Soviet bureaucrats, is a stout fast-talking creature about a short man’s height.  Trouble-maker in extreme and a glutton, Behemoth, which in Russian means ‘hippo,’ walks on his hind legs and is entirely different from what I saw in Master and Margarita at Synetic.  Philip’s graceful, tall Abyssinian hooligan at first called a silent remark in my mind, ‘What in the world is this?’  It was almost like taking my favourite teddy bear away!  After a few minutes of sophisticated mischief by this new creature, I was not as disappointed, despite my initial fervent protest.  By the middle of the play (the scene in photo below), he won me over.

Apparently, many viewers had similar experience.  This could be worth much more than any awards.  When an actor can so successfully unmold a stereotype, it is a very big deal!

Philip is going to appear in another, Russia-related play soon, which warrants a post here later this month. /*


In the photo: Philip as Behemoth is in front.  On the right, Alex Mills as Azazello, in the back on stilts is Scott Brown as Koroviev.  To the left is Sarah Taurchini as Hella, and Armand Sindoni as Woland  in the middle.

Synetic Theater’s Jekyll and Hyde — the wrath of the black swan

In your strangest dreams, could you imagine that Dr. Jekyll’s second identity is an ‘upside-down’ black swan? Synetic’s director, Paata Tsikurishvili, did.  Yep, Odile, but with a twist.

Humor aside, this is another superb production by Synetic, and note on this site is much overdue, as I have enjoyed their plays for almost three years now.  This is the trailer and one of the many reviews for Jekyll and Hyde.  Runs through October 21 in Crystal City and is highly recommended.

There is no reason to repeat all the positive aspects noted by the professional reviewers.  Alex Mills’ transforming Jekyll into Hyde is very vivid, elaborate, and unsettling.  Both the director’s vision and actor’s unique abilities make this an unforgettable experience for the viewer.  Alex Mills has performed with Synetic as Merlin in King Arthur, Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo in Romeo & Juliet, and an outstanding  Azazello in Master & Margarita – to name just a few roles.  However, Alex’s enormous dramatic potential shows even more in Jekyll/Hyde.

In their productions, Synetic always has the golden mix of a powerful moral statement and entertainment.  Ideally, here I would have preferred an even stronger message.  However, the director’s choice to blend a dose of humor into Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde concoction might be right.  While arts carry both entertainment and ideological/educational function, in a consumer-oriented environment, at least part of the presentation is determined by the audience’s preferences.  Not to say that the play cannot try to re-educate the viewers or make them think deeper.  But if you scare everyone off by unsuitable to current tastes presentation, you won’t have anyone to educate.

The audience here clearly prefers at least some humor.  And this challenging task is skillfully achieved.  Transformed into a perverted black swan, Hyde is dehumanized into a creature, a humanoid thing.  This does send the right message that evil can be very liberating and there lies the danger.  But it also makes it easier to inject minor humorous elements into Hyde’s actions and take the edge off.   The black swan’s rampage would have been much more unnerving, had he retained more human features.  And we should probably thank Paata and Alex for not having taken the unsettling path.  There are a few good books that I cannot pick up again after reading once, as they were too disturbing.

In conclusion I would note outstanding work of the set designer, Daniel Pinha.  Also, Rebecca Hausman is an excellent new find for the theater.  I read that she played Masha in Chekhov’s Chaika.  I wish I could have seen that  — it seems to me she would be excellent in that role.

Personally, I very much enjoyed two unusual elements in Jekyll and Hyde: the gas masks and the black swan.  These reminded me of the two incongruent, yet essential elements of my Soviet past: civil defense exercises and arts, and made me feel quite at home :-). // *