- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 27, 2002

Shakespeare purists who insist that cutting any dialogue from a work of the Bard is like taking a pair of scissors to the Bible ought to avoid the Synetic Theater's production of "Hamlet." In this production, every word has been omitted.
"Hamlet" is the most quoted and studied play in the English language, maybe even in any language. Everyone knows at least a few lines from it, even those who don't know they do.
The opening sequence of this production, when the actors look and dance like Mike Myers' Dieter in "Saturday Night Live," provokes an uneasy feeling that a silent "Hamlet" isn't the wisest choice. A skull, the emblem of Act V, Scene 1, makes an early appearance when Prince Hamlet (Paata Tsikurishvili) then blows on the skull like a trumpet.
After the off-putting introduction, the play gets on its feet, running for the bloody conclusion. At a lithe 80 minutes, this "Hamlet" doesn't get a chance to be sprawling or ponderous, and that is good for everybody.
This "Hamlet" is difficult to characterize, which is precisely the point. It contains a lot of stylized movement and dance, but the play isn't "re-imagined" as a long interpretive dance number. Nor is it simply the play with the words subtracted, as in a pantomime. It is the first production of the Synetic Theater, a new project begun under the aegis of the Stanislavsky Theater by Stanislavsky co-artistic director Tsikurishvili and his wife, choreographer and pantomimist Irina Tsikurishvili.
If you want to see the play, it helps immensely if you know the plot ahead of time. A couple of scenes do work better with words the business with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is hard to discern until they're dead, at which time they are more recognizable.
Mr. Tsikurishvili, who also directs, cooperates with the script rather than using it as a springboard for his own theatrical indulgences. That is not to say he follows the plot with Jesuitical precision (one of the scenes, a flashback to the death of Hamlet's father, is a fabrication), but he shows respect for the play's integrity. As the title character, Mr. Tsikurishvili is better at expressing himself through his body than his head. Even through emotionally wrenching scenes, he almost appears to be a very limber puppet, with his torso and limbs exploding with energy and his face as immobile as a woodcarving.
Catherine Gasta, as Queen Gertrude, is suitably repulsive as Hamlet's conspiring mother. As the Player Queen and the Courtier, Irina Koval distinguishes herself from the other actors, in one instance performing a comic striptease without removing any of her clothes. Miss Tsikurishvili makes an ethereal Ophelia, who seems to die gradually as the play progresses. Her death culminates in an ecstatic embrace of death's final release.
The black costumes and the black set, both designed by Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili, contribute to the sense of doom and darkness. Lighting effects by Colin K. Bills greatly accentuate that mood.
The music, which is taken from works by Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, dominates the play almost as much as do the actors themselves. Funky bass-driven numbers are interspersed with classically inspired compositions to a weirdly compelling effect.
The visual tropes woven through the play are by turns amusing and disturbing. Hamlet's and Ophelia's hands moving like a bird's wings, shown when the pair converse in the beginning as well as at her funeral, are a brilliant stroke.
At least two of the scenes are actually better with no words. The play-within-a-play, when Hamlet gets the actors to represent his father's death and betrayal by his mother, comes off as a vicious satire of the earlier death scene, with mourners crying their crocodile tears as they secretly rejoice at the change on the throne. The closing scene, accompanied by crashing, throbbing music and acrobatic swordplay, could scarcely be more satisfying. When Hamlet finally gets his revenge, you see justice enacted before your eyes.
Synetic Theater has tremendous promise if its future plays are anything like this one. A "Hamlet" without words might seem like a meal without food, but if you're skeptical, see it yourself.

***1/2
WHAT: "Hamlet"
WHERE: Stanislavsky Theater Studio at Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through May 26
TICKETS: $25 to $30
PHONE: 202/265-3748
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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