What do you get when you combine Shakespeare, a Charlie Chaplin film, and So You Think You Can Dance? While your head may be spinning at this strange formula, the answer will be something equivalent to the Synetic Theater‘s current run of Twelfth Night. Set in the Roaring ’20s, and taking a cue from the silent films of that same era, the husband-and-wife team of director Paata Tsikurishvili and choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili have created a bold and highly enjoyable take on the Bard’s classic tale — all without a single word being uttered.
But fear not the silence; the program provides a complete synopsis of the play so that no one is confused. It’s a story that follows Shakespeare closely. Fraternal twins Sebastian (Alex Mills) and Viola (Irina Tsikurishvili performing double duty) get separated during a shipwreck. When Sebastian is assumed to have drowned, Viola disguises herself as a man and acts as Duke Orsino’s (Philip Fletcher) page in order to stay safe. A hopeless romantic, the Duke is in love with the grieving Countess Olivia (Kathy Gordon) and calls on his page to act on his behalf to woo her. Hilarity ensues when Olivia falls for the masquerading Viola and a host of characters factor into this love triangle.
As Viola, Tsikurishvili blends tragedy and comedy decisively through her expressions, showing traces of being both strong and vulnerable, and journeying on a physical gambit of emotion. Her dance moves are electrifying, so much so that it’s hard to keep your eyes off her when she’s onstage. Mills is equally commanding with his footwork, although his character doesn’t have the same range of emotions to go through. Together, especially during the rip-roaring, fascinating finale, the two are sublime.
The supporting company is top-notch as well. Gordon is a hoot as the impulsive Olivia, making moves on Viola while using her brother’s death as a somewhat emotional aphrodisiac. Fletcher also has some great bouts of physical comedy, finding just the right notes to play the overbearing Orsino, without taking it too far. Clowns Feste and Fabian (Zana Gankhuyag and Vato Tsikurishvili, respectively) also get in some great dance licks. The ensemble of dancers takes on everything from the Lindy, Cakewalk, and even the Charleston, doing the Roaring ’20s proud.
Director Tsikurishvili keeps things tight, fast-paced, and interesting. There are no wasted breaths or silent soliloquies taking away from the dancing and action. He also incorporates plenty of physical comedy for his actors to accomplish, with the laughs firing one after another. Phil Charlwood’s set design is inspired, evoking memories of the Golden Age of Hollywood. There are even several Shakespeare quotes projected throughout the production adding to the silent movie feel. Kendra Rai’s costumes play on that theme, and her costuming of the Clown Fabian is a highlight, with pants large enough to carry a mélange of items, to great comedic effect.
The production is a return engagement for the Synetic Theater, where, two years ago, it had been nominated for a Helen Hayes award. When you have the ability to make Twelfth Night this much fun without words, there’s no reason not to go back to the well again.