Theater Review: “Home of the Soldier” at Synetic Theater

The Arlington company tackles war in this moving but uneven production.

By: Jane Horwitz

Cinematic images perpetually tug at the creative heart of Synetic Theater’s Paata Tsikurishvili. Audiences may see his now-iconic blend of acting, dance, and athletics as a uniquely theatrical hybrid, but the influence of cinema has always been there, flickering and flashing through everything he ever conjures.

In the company’s narratively flawed but visually stunning original piece, Home of the Soldier, Synetic’s artistic director has a particularly galvanizing canvas on which to splash his multimedia vision. When sights and sounds—as opposed to dialogue and plot—fill the stage, the show is riveting. It’s in the second half that this tale of an American soldier deployed abroad founders on an overextended plot and clich├ęs.

Synetic company member and resident fight choreographer Ben Cunis wrote the script, using interviews with military people as background research. Some of the soldier-to-soldier dialogue has a distinct ring of authenticity, but as the show veers toward its implausibly coincidental climax, Cunis and director Tsikurishvili felt compelled to throw in practically every issue one hears about today relating to the military—post-traumatic stress disorder, roadside bombs, questions pertaining to torture, relations between men and women in the military, Skyping with the folks back home. It’s too much for one play.

But those glitches aren’t made manifest until long after an audience has been gobsmacked by the first half of the play, which is strong enough to hold their attention even after things falter. A young American soldier (Vato Tsikurishvili) begins basic training. Joseph Carlson, utterly convincing as the drill sergeant, puts the young recruit and his cohorts through their paces, barking them through a macho-balletic sequence (choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili and Cunis) that is visually and verbally mesmerizing, set to an explosive electronic score by Synetic’s resident composer, Konstantine Lortkipanidze. This is the kind of thrilling stagecraft that earns Synetic its stripes.

Played with a muscular, sullen single-mindedness by the 21-year-old offspring of Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili, the young soldier, actually dubbed “Son” in the playbill, rarely speaks—a quirk of Cunis’s script—but he has a secret that radically shifts the direction of the second half of the story and also, unfortunately, challenges the credibility of the work. But before all that, when the show’s visual and dramatic ingredients are still firing on all cylinders, the Son is deployed to an unnamed, violence-riven country not unlike Afghanistan. Situations test his moral mettle—the first time he kills someone, the sight of a fellow soldier about to torture or rape a female prisoner.

The ghostly male and female insurgents in this scary land are clad by costume designer Laree Lentz in surprisingly stylish garb more reminiscent of a modern-dance troupe—black sleeveless vests for the men (the better to show off those trademark Synetic muscles) and long, head-covering shawls and skirts for the women, all overlaid with leafy scraps of fabric as a kind of camouflage.

The Son acquires information from an insurgent that pulls his entire squad into a risky mission. As it becomes more and more contrived, the story stumbles to its end, yet it still manages to be quite moving. This is due in no small part to the exciting multimedia elements in the production. Whenever the soldiers are attacked, or encounter a roadside bomb, some of those sandbags piled at the back of Daniel Pinha’s desolate, scaffold-ringed set fall down. As they do, the back wall is revealed, and the spectacular multimedia designs of Riki K. projected onto it turn the production into something that rises above its uneven script. A collage of video on multiple screens shows “location” footage of soldiers on patrol, catching a sniper, or searching for someone as the soldiers onstage move in tandem or counterpoint to it. In one poignant scene, we see the “live” soldiers talking to their families at home via Skype, and their families are projected on the video wall and heard in the audio track, in a kind of loving babble. It is very, very affecting. Throughout the show, Riki K.’s designs bring an epic quality to a script that doesn’t quite match it.

This is a show that Synetic should continue to revise and rework, because they’re onto something major. It’s just unfinished.

Home of the Soldier is at Synetic Theater through July 1. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. Tickets ($45 to $55) are available through Synetic’s website.