When Synetic Theater arrived in Washington, DC, it changed the landscape for theater presentation in the region. The company’s most recent offering, a remounting and reimagining of its 2014 production of Beauty and the Beast, is, by turns, delightful, surprising, magical, sensual, and awe-inspiring. While this production has its minor glitches, it also shows us what is unique about Synetic that makes it a company worth visiting again and again.
Unlike the somewhat sanitized American version of this story that many of us are familiar with, this production is a chronicle of revenge that takes its cues from the original tale, which unfolds amid a world that is buckling under undeniable power inequity, acknowledged trauma, and cruelty. Gleefully, digging into the magic bag of tricks that theater has at its disposal, the Synetic crew makes this story a dream, a nightmare, and a joyride.
A Prince (vigorously embodied by Zana Gankhuyag), upon entering a forest, falls in love with Emmeranne, a girl he finds there: a girl whom his parents consider an inappropriate mate. The disapproving parents hunt down the girl and burn her as a witch. They also burn the forest that protected her. Her magic keeps her alive, however. And she proceeds to kill the Prince’s father and places their castle and the prince under a curse, confining him to the body of a Monster until the day he has found true love. In the meantime, Emmeranne adopts the shape of a crow. The first time we meet Emmeranne that is how we encounter her.
It is this crow-Emmeranne character who tells this story. Rachael Small imbues Emmeranne with all the grief and time-biding, acerbic rage of someone who has been violently deprived of their happiness and who, as a result, has become devoted to seeing her revenge come to fruition.
Apart from the narration, the story is told — as usual in a Synetic production — in precise, rigorous, highly motivated movement without speech.
The title character, Belle, becomes part of this story when her father (Jean Paul), returning from a failed business venture, picks a rose from The Beast’s garden. In his impoverished circumstances, it is the only gift that he can afford for one of his three daughters. The Beast, alerted by his castle to Jean Paul’s theft, resolves to kill him in exchange for this trespass. But he allows Jean Paul to return home with the rose and bid his family farewell first. Belle, hearing her father’s situation, secretly takes the rose and returns to the monster in her father’s stead. After many plot twists, Belle and the Beast find true love with each other, thus freeing the Beast from his curse and returning him to his human form. Emmeranne finds herself defeated and disappears into the forest.
In a production in which the words are at a minimum, the technical aspects carry even more weight than usual in telling us the story. When we first enter the theater we see a set that is dominated by a screen between two decorative pillars, which mark the center of the wall that constitutes the entrance to the Beast’s castle. The staging is a combination of 1) live actors and 2) the projection of the shadows of characters and locales cast from puppets (puppet designer Zana Gankhuyag) from behind this screen.
Sometimes we watch as a live actor runs toward the audience while light projects their shadow on the screen and the pillars surrounding the screen move forward or backward giving the illusion of landmarks passing on the road while the person moves across distances.
We first see the projection screen used to spectacular and mind-boggling effect for the “star” entrance of Emmeranne. We hear and see a crow flit from one side of the screen to the other. (Lighting design by Brian Allard; Sound Engineer: JJ Nichols.) And then, suddenly Emmeranne emerges from the screen enveloped in a swirling cloud of crow feathers. She appears to simply congeal from the screen out of black and gray smoke. It’s an effective, gasp-inducing moment. And it recalibrates our expectations for what kind of a show we’re going to see.
Delaney Theisz and Kasey Brown designed the costuming for this remount. In addition to the feather-swirling costume for Emmeranne, they give us a Beast who is costumed as a ram that walks on two legs — most of the time. This beast is literally “horny,” with his head and face taken up by two enormous spiraling horns, his body encased in spikes of hair. The Beast’s world is a totally masculine one, extrapolated from parts of the cursed castle. The costuming allows the castle itself to come to life as classically muscular men sculpted from the stone of the castle itself. The men’s arms serve as candelabras. These stone statues are the Beast’s only company. But they can dance with energy, grace, and enthusiasm. (Choreography: Irina Tsikurishvili.)
In contrast, Belle and her sisters are clothed in pastel cloth that wafts about them wherever they go. While they provide the story with a needed lightness, they can’t compete with the full-out fight scenes.
No theater company in this area does fight scenes (or love scenes) like Synectic. With Vato Tsikurishvili’s fight choreography, there is a clear sense of danger in this company’s fight scenes. Your fellow actors may not mean you any harm, but there is clearly risk. The actors are as well trained as circus performers. The battle between The Beast and Avenant, Belle’s vain, money-minded would-be suitor, is the sort of thing we go to the Rocky franchise to see: bodies fly across the stage, drop, roll, and recover or not and are dragged offstage.
Bringing together the inclined pillars that bookend the entrance to the Beast’s castle, a bedroom is formed that allows Belle and the Beast to get to know each other better in a gradual and delightful way.
The opening night performance of this current iteration of Beauty and the Beast was preceded by a standing ovation for the onstage presence of the company co-founder and Artistic Director Paata Tsikurishvili. He had experienced a very serious automobile accident that forced the company to put Beauty and the Beast on its schedule (replacing War of the Worlds, whose world premiere was postponed to fall 2023). Now, here he was onstage to show us that he was still alive and recovering.
With its introduction of physical theater to DC, Synetic brought a kind of performance that Washington audiences had not experienced before, and it garnered numerous Helen Hayes awards for its efforts. The thought of losing one of the people who made this “sea change” in Washington theater possible had to be frightening for the company’s supporters. The relief and gratitude for his and the company’s reprieve permeated the production.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
Beauty and the Beast plays through April 2, 2023 (with performances on Friday and Saturday evenings, Sunday matinees, and select Thursday evenings), at Synetic Theater in the underground Crystal City Shops, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, VA. Tickets ($35–$60) are available online, at the theater box office (open an hour before showtime), by email at [email protected], or by phone at (703) 824-8060 ext. 117.
Recommended for ages 7 and up. Parental guidance is advised for younger children due to adult themes.
The playbill for Beauty and the Beast is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional but recommended for all patrons, staff, and ushers during shows and events. See Synetic Theater’s complete COVID-19 Safety Protocols here.
Beauty and the Beast
Belle: Irina Kavsadze
Beast: Zana Gankhuyag
Emmeranne: Rachael Small
Jean Paul:Irakli Kavsadze
Magnificent: Philip Fletcher
Claudette: Nutsa Tediashvili
Marie: Irene Hamilton
Avenant: Jacob Thompson
Ensemble: Osama Ashour
Ensemble: Lev Belolipetski
CREW AND CREATIVE TEAM
Director/Adaptor: Ben Cunis
Co-director/Fight Choreographer: Vato Tsikurishvili
Choreographer: Irina Tsikurishvili
Co-adaptor: Peter Cunis
Original music: Clint Herring & Andrew Gerlicher
Additional music/resident composer: Koki Lortkipanidze
Sound Design: Ben Cunis and Vato Tsikurishvili
Additional sound design: Konstantin Lortkipanidze, Paata Tsikurishvili, & JJ Nichols
Technical director: Phil Charlwood
Puppet designer: Zana Gankhuyag
Original costume designer: Kendra Rai
Remount costume designer: Delaney Theisz
Assistant costume designer: Kasey Brown
Lighting designer: Brian Allard
Sound engineer: JJ Nichols
Props designer: Joshua Lucas & Meghan Emanuel
Associate lighting designer: Ian Claar
Stage manager: Samantha Leahan
Production manager: Mark Carmouze & Yaritza Pacheco
Master Electrician: Alex F. Keen
Lighting Board Programmer & Operator: Susannah Cai
Stitcher & Draper: Courtney Wood
Assistant Stage Manager: Joshua Lucas
Costume Painter: Taylor Aragon