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Theater Review: “Othello” at Arlington’s Synetic Theater

Synetic Theater stages a powerful, wordless production of Shakespeare’s dark drama.

Roger Payano stars in Othello. Photograph by Graeme Shaw of GBS Photography

 stars out of four

Shakespeare’s Othello has plenty of fodder for drama, from an ill-fated pair of lovers to a manipulative, sociopathic villain. But when staged by Arlington’s Synetic Theater, Othello has the ability to get under an audience’s skin like never before.

Welcome to Silent Shakespeare, an approach Synetic has practically trademarked (the Crystal City–based theater plans to launch a touring company this season devoted to such interpretations). With Othello, one of three past productions Synetic is remounting for its “Speak No More” festival this fall, director Paata Tsikurishvili and choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili have stripped away Shakespeare’s words, distilling the work down to raw feeling. Despite the lack of dialogue, the effect is no less emotionally jarring.

Synetic’s productions are always driven by movement, battle choreography, and dance, and Othello in particular has an athletic physicality—fight scenes are brutal and move quickly and dizzily. Othello’s use of video further fleshes out the production. Clips are projected onto the set’s large, jagged pillars, onto pieces of fabric, even onto the actors themselves, and the performers physically interact with the multimedia displays as they would with fellow cast members.

In this production, Othello’s visualization of his wife with another man isn’t only in his head. The audience literally sees his torment through graphic video clips of the entangled lovers—at one point, Othello (Roger Payano) physically shoves a moving image of Desdemona (Salma Shaw) away from her suspected lover, Cassio (Scott Brown).

Though it’s a Shakespearian tragedy, the show has some surprisingly funny moments, many of which come from the performance of Vato Tsikurishvili as Roderigo, a rival for Desdemona’s affections. Tsikurishvili plays the brokenhearted Roderigo as broad and bumbling, almost clownlike. ( Othello’s supporting players often make more of an impression than Payano and Shaw, whose chemistry is pretty restrained.)

And then there’s Iago. Or, to be clear, the Iagos. Three different performers—a sinister Philip Fletcher, a silky Alex Mills, and a savage Irina Tsikurishvili—are charged with playing Shakespeare’s most famous villain, often at the same time. The philosophical reasoning behind the casting decision isn’t entirely clear, but from a staging standpoint, the trick works beautifully. The actors, dressed in complementary red, white, and black costumes, come together for some of Othello’s most thrilling scenes, including one where they burst in and out of a three-sided mirror, leaping, tumbling, and scattering metallic material everywhere.

Thanks to the three actors embodying him, Iago is everywhere at once, whispering treachery in one character’s ear while placing a dagger in the hand of another. With this kind of force working against Othello, this production drives home the terrible inevitability of his fate.

Othello runs through November 6 at Synetic Theater in Crystal City. Tickets ($45 to $55) are available through Synetic’s Web site.