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Theater Review: “Twelfth Night” at Synetic Theater

Synetic’s mostly wordless, Prohibition-set adaptation of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy of cross-dressing is a thrill.

Alex Mills as Sebastian and Irina Tsikurishvili as Viola in Twelfth Night. Photograph by Koko Lanham.

On its face, Twelfth Night doesn’t seem like the easiest work to adapt to one of Synetic Theatre’s signature silent productions. It doesn’t have the instant story recognition factor or the overarching theme of, say, Romeo and Juliet. Its twin-related plot machinations can be confusing at best. (At least Malvolio’s donning of ridiculous yellow stockings and crossed garters is a visual joke.)

Despite all these challenges, Synetic manages to pull it off—and then some. Director Paata Tsikurishvili’s production is creative, entertaining, and oozing with charm. True, the company is cheating a little in terms of the “silent” aspect of the show: The setup for this Roaring Twenties-set Twelfth Night is that clown partners Feste and Fabian are shooting a silent-film adaptation of the story. That means the audience winds up seeing snippets of Shakespearean dialogue set to music in the vein of old-school, orchestrated black-and-white movie subtitles. That said, it’s more of a clever framing device for the production than a necessary vehicle for translation. Synetic instead relies on abstract, interpretive movement to drive home the characters’ relationships with one another, such as a haunting, mirror-based dance sequence between the separated siblings Viola (the irreplaceable Irina Tsikurishvili) and Sebastian (Alex Mills).

Twelfth Night’s story’s a bit of a doozy for the unfamiliar, but here’s the gist: Twins Viola and Sebastian are separated during a shipwreck (in this production’s case, they’re performers on a cruise liner, and the invaluable clown duo of Ben Cunis and Vato Tsikurishvili hilariously use an aquarium, a toy boat, and the chorus of dancers to get this point across). Viola ends up in the service of the grieving Lady Olivia (a saucy Kathy Gordon), and attempts to woo her on behalf of Duke Orsino (an amusingly oily Philip Fletcher). Oh, while dressed as a man, of course. Olivia falls for Viola’s alter-ego Cesario, Viola falls for Orsino, hijinks ensue.

The Prohibition-era theme of the show brings a new energy to Synetic’s company, whether they’re decked out in striking flapper and gangster apparel, intricate red, black, and white clown costumes, or some combination of both. In-house composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze weaves snippets of recognizable tunes—everything from “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing)” to Bach’s “Air on the G String”—into his energetic score. Phil Charlwood has created a clever, constantly changing set that uses doors and frames to quickly move the action along and remind the audience they’re watching a “movie.” (There are also some fun touches such as a piano that converts into a secret bar.) And the era-appropriate dancing means Synetic’s performers get to show off their skills with dramatic leaps and lifts, impressive flips, and even creative takes on the Charleston. It all comes to a head with a dizzying dance finale wedding that might bring the audience to its feet—it certainly did on press night.

Twelfth Night is at Synetic Theatre through February 16. Running time is about one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($15 to $75) are available via Synetic Theatre’s website.