In Act 1, Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the water sprite Ariel gleefully boasts that he has wrecked a wedding cruise, having cast Jove’s lightnings upon the vessel, summoned a sulphurous roar as mighty as Neptune’s trident, and sent the ship headed back to the still-vexed Bermoothes.
If all those words conjure up now are visions of a smelly Carnival Cruise ship full of pissed-off passengers, then see Synetic Theatre’s production of The Tempest, in which the company concocts nautical visions that capture Shakespeare’s tale as well as any 17th century words can.
Because—as fans of the movement-focused troupe know—there are no words when Synetic does Shakespeare. The Tempest is the ninth installation in the company’s Silent Shakespeare series, and it’s a seaworthy one. Aside from a boulder-like platform emerging from the rear of theater, the entire stage is flooded with four inches of water. There is no “pool onstage,” as in Arena Stage’s current production of Metamorphoses. Here, the pool is the stage.
The company has tried this tactic before, with its waterborne 2010 production of King Arthur. That was fun, but this makes a little more sense. Aided by projection artist Riki Kim, the company now treats the water more like a production tool than a gimmick, deploying it in conjunction with music, lighting, and multimedia effects. And the actors are valorous as ever. Philip Fletcher stars as Prospero, the disposed Duke of Milan banished to a remote island somewhere between Italy and North Africa. Dan Istrate goes all-out in silver spandex and platinum face paint as Ariel, the manipulative sprite in Prospero’s service. What this production does best, by far, is show what Shakespeare could only tell, and demonstrate what many productions merely hint at: that nearly everything that happens on this island happens because Prospero and Ariel will it through magical means. So when Istrate gestures backwards with his hand, an actor playing one of the shipwrecked intruders teeters backward, and falls over with a splash.
The show also illuminates the little details. When Prospero’s daughter Miranda (Irina Kavsadze) first encounters the shipwrecked prince Ferdinand (Scott Brown), she caresses his hand like it’s the first human appendage she’s seen outside her family. “A thing divine,” she says in the text. “For nothing natural I ever saw so noble.” When he does awaken, she peers at him from behind an onstage waterfall, and it’s the most beautiful aquatic meet-cute since Claire Danes stared at Leonardo DiCaprio through a tank full of angel fish.
Love at first sight is a bit easier to convey without words than a backstory involving political backstabbing, and here Synetic, er, takes a dive. Flashback scenes depict a woman trying to stab the baby Miranda. And when characters named Antonia, Alonso, and Sebastian end up on the island, their relationships to one another are rather unclear—in part because Antonia, Prospero’s sibling, is Antonio in the original play. As best as the viewer can tell, the actors make up some royal family, wandering the island trying to kill one another. Maybe that lousy cruise made them homicidal? (In the text, they were all returning from a destination wedding in Tunisia. Seriously.)
Nonsense perpetrated by Gonzalo (Irakli Kavsadze), the butler who found the boat’s stash of booze, and Trinculo (Emily Whitworth), makes more sense. The former does a good bit of mime work, including catching invisible fish, and is dressed in the familiar stripes of Marcel Marceau. There is a scene involving cigarettes, sparkly lingerie, and a pink feather boa that breaks from the otherwise-convincing desert island aesthetic, but then, it just wouldn’t a Synetic show without a sequined red brassiere.
Or a water ballet. The lifts choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili has devised for Brown and Irina Kavsadze (Irakli’s daughter, by the way) come straight from classical ballet, the key difference being that here, in a stunning pas de deux, they’re doing swallow lifts in a pool of water. There’s a grand finale dance sequence that should win Synetic the Helen Hayes Award for synchronized swimming. Sit in the front rows, and you’ll leave all wet. But everyone in theater should ship out feeling very, very buoyed.
9 Circles By Bill Cain At Forum Theatre to March 2
Given the Shakespearean effort that was Bill Cain’s last play seen in D.C., it’s easy to understand why Forum Theatre, a smart, scrappy troupe with a focus on new work, signed on to stage the D.C. debut of the playwright’s 9 Circles. In 2011, Arena Stage hosted a run of Equivocation, Cain’s fascinating, slightly preachy exploration of the Bard’s writing process, his possible Catholic allegiances, and the nature of truthtelling. In 9 Circles, there’s plenty more hellfire to be had, even though just one character is a member of the clergy. The play consists of six didactic conversations between a U.S. solider accused of rape and murder and the various lawyers, shrinks, sergeants, and pastors who come by to chat about, well, rape and murder. Then there’s a trial—for war crimes, but in a civilian court—then two closing monologues. And then, finally, you can go.
The play is two hours with no intermission—a stretch that feels interminable, especially is compared to other plays inspired by conflicts Iraq and Afghanistan that have appeared on D.C. stages lately.
War is not a comfortable topic, but the best treatments of military conflict deploy storytelling tactics that compel audiences to sit through shows about it. Black Watch used whiz-bang effects and authentic, sympathetic characters. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo relied on magical realism. Dying City was talky, but it was a taut one hour packed with wartime revelations. In 9 Circles, Cain makes his worthwhile point in the first scene—the U.S. is fighting an unjust war with warriors unfit for duty—then has his characters spend 90 plotless minutes moralizing about it.
Julian Elijah Martinez stars as a teenage soldier hailing from a broken Texas home, with a personality disorder and a disturbing desire to kill people. The Army “made a mistake” in recruiting him, but apparently waited too long to send him packing. Martinez delivers all his lines in an irritating “Yes, sir! No, sir!” bark. Three more actors do admirable work modulating their personas to portray multiple characters, while the minimalist sets and props—the makings of a series of “circles,” including jail cells and a courtroom—display Forum’s usual attention to detail.
None of which is to say, of course, that we don’t need more plays about Iraq and Afghanistan. They merely need dialogue written for actors, not talking heads.