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Wall Street Journal to Synetic Theater: Do Shakespeare With Words!

Photograph via Synetic Theater.

Wall Street Journal contributor James Bovard has a message for Arlington’s Synetic Theater and its wordless productions of William Shakespeare plays: Recite the script, or get off the stage.

Bovard, a libertarian policy analyst by day, writes in an op-ed in Tuesday’s Journal that Synetic’s silent, sultry, and often fleshy productions are turning traditionally high-fiber theater into empty calories. “In Act 5 of Love’s Labor Lost, one character scoffs at pedants: ‘They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps,’ ” Bovard writes. “The latest Shakespeare fashion, at least in the Washington area, is to invite people to a feast of language and serve nothing but grunts, grimaces and grins—with a few gyrations thrown in for dessert.”

Synetic, in Bovard’s estimation, is the latest in what he calls a healthy supply of “bad Shakespeare productions in America,” even knocking the fact that the 14-year-old theater company has racked up 27 Helen Hayes Awards since its inception in 2001 and its financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts and Virginia Commission for the Arts. “[H]igh-energy performances relying on acrobatics, pantomime and special effects,” are no good for the Bard, Bovard writes.

But while its shows may be wordless, Synetic is plenty verbose in responding to the Journal.

“The conceit is not new, but the interdisciplinary performance techniques and theatrical devices do continue to evolve with each production as part of Synetic’s mission to expand the boundaries of theatre and the theatrical literacy of its audiences,” the company says in a lengthy response. “At Synetic, his words are translated into physical language and visual poetry, just as they have been translated into countless other languages and art forms throughout history.”

Synetic’s marketing manager, Alysa Turner, adds in a phone interview that Bovard’s column appeared to suggest several productions that Synetic has never staged, including Love’s Labor Lost and Richard II. “We’ve haven’t done any of the Richards or the Henrys,” Turner says. “The article was very uninformed.”

Bovard has not replied to questions about whether he has been to a Synetic production or how he prefers his Shakespeare be presented (including abridgements, translations, and period-specific adaptations). Turner says it is possible he might have been alerted to Synetic’s existence through a Washington Post preview of the company’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opens Wednesday. But it is clear that Bovard is divided over whether Shakespeare can ever be performed without actors reciting lines: “Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been beautifully adapted by Prokofiev, but that presentation succeeds thanks to magnificent music and viewers’ familiarity with the characters and storyline,” he writes.

Konstantine Lortkipanidze, Synetic’s in-house composer, might not a household name like Sergei Prokofiev, but he does write scores for the company’s shows, including multiple runs of Romeo and Juliet.

“We’re hoping to have more enlightened audiences than Mr. Bovard,” when A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens tomorrow, Turner says.

UPDATE, 7/15: In an email to Washingtonian, Bovard writes that he conducted the research for his column on Synetic Theater by “reading a wide array of articles on Synetic over the past decade as well as watching many of their YouTube clips,” although he does not say whether or not he’s actually seen one of the company’s shows. He also says he did not err in bringing up Shakespeare works Synetic has not produced.

“Synetic says that my article ‘uses made-up examples from Richard II, the Henrys and Love’s Labor’s Lost,’ ” he writes. “Quoting Shakespeare is not using a ‘made-up example.’ It is simply relying on the Bard’s robust English to vividly capture the power of spoken words.”

Bovard also adds a new line of attack—that Synetic’s wordless performances do a disservice to deaf audience members. “Sign language interpreters have provided deaf access to Shakespeare since 1894,” he writes. “The best pantomime artist in the world cannot convey 10 percent of the substance that a good sign interpreter delivers. It’s not my fault that ‘the Emperor has no nouns and verbs.'”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.