A Midsummer Immigrant’s Dream: Synetic Theater family stages Silent Shakespeare

WTOP's Jason Fraley covers 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at Synetic Theater (Part 1)

His parents fled the collapsing Soviet Union to found Synetic Theater in Virginia.

Vato Tsikurishvili performs in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” now through July 24.

“I’m inviting you to come see ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,'” Tsikurishvili told WTOP. “We run Thursday through Sunday in Crystal City … Free parking after 4 p.m. Come holler!”

Set in Athens, Greece, Shakespeares’s iconic play follows the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, as well as three interwoven subplots, including the story of Athenian lovers.

“The thing I like about ‘Midsummer’ is how it’s divided so beautifully,” Tsikurishvili said. “There’s three different groups and storylines that intertwine with one another. One group is the lovers: Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena. They have an interesting situation where both of the boys only like one of the girls, so it’s a love triangle in conflict.”

The second subplot involves magical fairies in the forest, including the sprite Puck.

“Puck in our adaptation is also Titania and Oberon’s child,” Tsikurishvili said. “That allows the character to be more of a kid. I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘he,’ not this version, Ariel [Kraje] is playing it, so it’s gender neutral, but it’s a fairy. Puck is a very mischievous, young, little troublemaker. [It] goes around trying to fix the situation of the lovers and makes it worse.”

The third subplot involves six amateur actors rehearsing a play for the kingdom.

“You’ve got Bottom, Snug, Flute, Quince, who’s the director,” Tsikurishvili said. “They’re trying to put on a play for the court. It’s supposed to be this magical wedding for the prince and his soon-to-be bride, but they have two or three days to rehearse, so there’s not time to put this show together. … You have this hilarious production of the play at the end.”

Tsikurishvili himself plays Bottom, who is infamously turned into a donkey.

“I’m that donkey,” Tsikurishvili said. “The reason he even turns into an ass is because he’s an ass of a person, too. Puck notices that about him, decides to play a prank on him and he ends up meeting Titania in a very funny, interesting, kind of silly way. … The first time we did this show I was 17 or 18. … I played Snout. I still think that’s my favorite part.”

Rather than a spoken-word production, Synetic presents “Silent Shakespeare.”

“You know when you read Shakespeare or read anything really, you see the words with your eyes, but in your mind’s eye, you’re not seeing the words in your imagination, you’re seeing the characters, you’re seeing the story, you’re seeing images,” Tsikurishvili said. “Essentially what you’re seeing in your imagination, take that and turn it into a production.”

It’s the brainchild of his parents, Paata and Irina, who respectively direct and choreograph the performance.

“The two of them together, I don’t think there’s anything they can’t tackle,” Tsikurishvili said.” He’s able to take a metaphor and make it physical. You’ll see stuff on stage and think of the words, so it’s the opposite effect. Usually, you read and your imagination does stuff, but now you’ll be seeing stuff and your imagination will remind you of the words.”

Together, his parents craft a sensory experience unlike any other in local theater.

“We’re giving you so much stimulus, not just with our bodies but with sound, everyone’s flying around,” Tsikurishvili said. “There’s a moon upstage. We’re very minimalistic in this production, so you’re not gonna get hit with too much craziness in terms of set. We have a few ‘asparagus’ hanging: straw fabric tubes and lights that go up to add a magical quality.”

His parents cofounded Synetic Theater after a harrowing immigration journey.

“Soviet [Union] collapses in ’91, a crazy war happened in Georgia a few years earlier, very reminiscent of what’s happening now in Ukraine, same situation,” Tsikurishvili said. “I was born after the war. … My very first toy ever was our neighbor’s handgun. … We emigrate in ’95, and in ’97, I moved to Columbus, Ohio to live with my grandparents from 7 to 17.”

He saw his parents once or twice a year as they figured out life in America.

“You go from the Soviet Union, literally communism, into capitalism: total different mindset, priorities, way of living,” Tsikurishvili said. “That’s culture shock, then you have the language, not knowing any English. … Fortunately, my grandpa was able to escape, he was the coach for Soviet Union gymnastics. … He’s the reason my whole family is here.”

Around 2001, his parents were discovered by Andrei Malaev-Babel, who worked at the Stansislovsky Theater Studio (STS), an acting conservatory here in D.C.

“He’s really the one that discovered them artistically,” Tsikurishvili said. “My parents started doing work there, training actors there. My dad opened up a branch at STS called Synetic so he could do his work. … Eventually, there was a rift and we split, so STS was STS and Synetic was Synetic, so in 2001 they put on the first official Synetic play with ‘Hamlet.'”

“Hamlet” was the first of their “Silent Shakespeare” series in 2001.

“People did not know what to expect,” Tsikurishvili said. “We did not know what to expect. I remember how nervous they were because you’re putting a lot on the line making a decision like that. How do you take something so iconic and do it totally upside-down? Shakespeare is supposed to have words and suddenly you’re taking the words out?”

The theater seats were practically empty with a handful of folks in the audience.

“One of the first shows they did was to an audience of four people, but in those four was a donor and she stayed with us for all these years,” Tsikurishvili said. “She became a donor for Synetic for a very long time and helped my dad get acclimated to the U.S. and the American way of business. The rest is history. … It kept snowballing into what it is today.”

Today, he follows a path paved by his mime father and ballerina mother.

“His mime is, oh my gosh! I get told I’m good every now and then, but if you see my dad perform, yo, kids, sit down! Put it back, get that notebook out, take notes! I’m not even thinking about catching up, I’m just trying to be me. They’ve given me so many opportunities and tools, it’s not so much about catching up, it’s about discovering me.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley covers 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at Synetic Theater (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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