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Out, Out Damned…Dialogue

With Macbeth, Arlington’s Synetic Theatre is set to debut its second wordless interpretation of Shakespeare.

On the rehearsal space’s tilted stage, the eight actors are running in place, stiff-legged like zombies. Their feet move so fast they struggle to keep in sync with the music. So Irina Tsikurishvili makes them run more. When the music abruptly drops, the sound of labored panting fills the room.

“Five minute break,” she says, as they actors collapse on the floor. Then she smiles and corrects herself, “I mean two minutes.”

Tsikurishvili is letting the troupe’s wordless staging of “Macbeth” take shape organically. “We’re going to follow rhythm or we’re going to create our rhythm, I just want to see it,” she tells her actors before making two of them sprint together, second after second after second, trying to understand why one’s timing seems to be off by “milliseconds or something.”

When Irina is finally ready to move on to another scene, actor Ben Cunis uses a sweatshirt to wipe the sweat off his face. After learning an observer is being exposed to Synetic for the first time, he points to the sweat-stained fabric in his hand and says, “Well, this is what it’s about.”

PAATA AND IRANA TSIKURISHVILI are husband and wife, director and choreographer respectively, of Arlington’s Synetic Theater, which is staging its wordless “Macbeth” at Rosslyn Spectrum from Jan. 11 to Feb. 25. Though not all of Synetic’s plays eliminate dialogue, the movement-oriented style of the troupe is well-suited to wordlessness. Meghan Grady (a witch) has been with Synetic over one year. She said American actors typically “start from the inside and work their way out. This way you start with the outside – the gesture the movement – and work your way in.”

“In a straight play everything is so subtle and natural. This is beyond natural.”

But when Paata Tsikurishvili explains the source of his vision, he conceptualizes it psychologically. “When you are in love, before you say, ‘I love you,’ something is going on inside you. That is where we try to capture our stuff.”

This pre-verbal penetration guides the Tsikurishvilis’ interpretation of Shakespeare. “It’s almost unbelievable you can do Shakespeare without words,” Paata says in Georgian-accented English. “What I say here is that Shakespeare is even stronger behind words.”

“Each writer, when he sits down, or she sits down, and starts writing. I believe they have images in their heads.” Capturing these images, and transforming them into a series of movements, says Paata, is “how we can be louder than words.”

THE IMAGES the Tsikurishvilis trace from Shakespeare’s imagination are “almost archetypals,” Paata adds. “We never chew things up for you, we suggest.”

As Paata speaks, male and female actors swirl on and off the cramped stage in twin circles that barely avoid collision. Their faces are frozen in pantomimes of despair. The music shifts and the actors form a phalanx on the floor, crawling up the banked stage like soldiers storming a beach. Irina puts them through numerous repetitions, each subtly adjusted to produce a more upsetting impression of the unnatural - arms angles twisted more sharply, motions synced more robotically. When she refers to the crawling figures as “the dead,” she puts a label on what had been a pre-verbal impression that informed the narrative without the clutter of interpretation.

Most of the main characters are onstage; Macbeth and the courtiers who will eventually kill him dance together in the “social chaos” that precedes Macbeth’s assumption of power and the onset of civil war. “The king is killed by Macbeth and then we have chaotic, nightmarish moment, a very surreal scene,” Paata explains.

Tsikurishvili left the Republic of Georgia in 1989, after the collapse of Soviet control. “Of course was gray life,” he said of the years under Communist rule. But he is grateful for the government-supported art school that allowed him to train as an actor and director.

In the late 1980s, the repressive stability that allowed drama to flourish gave way. As the Communist state lots its grip, revolutionaries for independence grew increasingly more capable of using violence to achieve their aims. Tsikurishvili and his countrymen found themselves at the center of a civil war. “It was time for revenge for everybody.”

Tsikurishvili is pleased with his country’s progress as a democracy, but he does not distinguish the revolutionary violence that preceded Georgian democracy from the murder that gives Macbeth the crown and transforms him into a tyrant. “The way Macbeth gained the power, somewhere, at some point, it kind of reflects that.”

In the corner of the rehearsal space, while the Tsikurishvilis refine society’s explosion onstage, the witches practice their dance – prancing and raising their arms as they spin in a nauseously contracted gyre.

THE PLAY WILL OPEN with a rabbi, priest and mullah praying around a globe. The three witches creep from backstage, dispose of the holy figures and don their religious insignias.

In their productions, the Tsikurishvilis strip away words to expose archetypal human elements, but they also add contemporary details. The approach, said Paata, is borrowed form Shakespeare. When Hamlet rewrites a play-within-a-play, hoping to make it disturbing enough to provoke a reaction from his step-father that exposes him as a murderer, he uses only stage directions, no dialogue.

The players perform in pantomime. The king walks out.

Inspired by this scene, the Tsikurishvilis created a wordless Hamlet several years ago. The audience stayed in the seats and the play won two Helen Hayes awards for D.C. area theatre: best director and best resident play.

Paata acknowledges he and his wife place a heavy demand on the actors to produce perfectly timed symbolic movements as well “acting” gestures that establish character. But both are vital. “If there will be even one second without acting, it’s going to be dry.” To illustrate, he cited Charlie Chaplin. “Technically he never said words. But he said everything.”

“It’s almost like you have Macbeth - the bones inside and not just the words.”

Dan Istrate (Duncan), one of the many members of the Synetic Troupe from abroad, said he was drawn to body language because it was the only way he could communicate with audiences in the Soviet satellite countries that his Romanian troupe visited. He said the Synetic style requires “total physical commitment” from its actors, comparing it to trapeze artists in the circus. In the rafters of the big top, “you cannot make a mistake because you die. Here it’s the same. You cannot go halfway with your emotions or your physicality because it’s not going to be good.”

This the attitude the Tsikurishvilis are relying on to convince skeptics who question whether Shakespeare can be Shakespeare without iambic pentameter. “I don’t know it’s a better good,” Paata said. “But at least, you know, we’re trying.”