Inside D.C. entertainment

Acting the fool: How Synetic transformed 'King Lear' into a three-ring circus

April 11, 2011 - 03:40 PM
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(Photo: Graeme B. Shaw/Synetic Theater | Date: Mar. 23, 2011)

When Synetic Theater's Paata Tsikurishvili decided to stage his seventh Silent Shakespeare, King Lear, in a world populated entirely by Pierrot clowns, he received some advice that he promptly ignored.

"I was told that Americans hate clowns," says the Georgian-born director. "Well, there is nothing lovable in King Lear."

Everyone in King Lear is a fool, and with some inspiration from Fellini, Tsikurishvili decided to make that singular quality unambiguous. And when he announced it to the cast, the concept was met with enthusiasm — but also some eyebrows raised as high as they would be painted on for the show.

Though the process of finding your clown personality, for professional clowns, can take a great deal of time, "They are too serious about it," says Tsikurishvili. He challenged his cast with "homework": Go home, stand in front of a mirror, and practice what facial characteristics your character in Lear would have as a clown. Then, paint your face to suit that personality. But even though the cast members of Lear were no strangers to physical theater, they learned that face paint would challenge everything they knew about acting.

"The first day that everyone painted their face, the show kind of started to make sense," says Ben Cunis, who plays Edgar. "We were still trying to figure out, how much are we clowns, how much are we actual people? I think what we keep discovering is that clowns are people too."

"Clowns are sad people in real life," says Tsikurishvili. "They are sad, tragic persons."

"What putting on the makeup did was it changed our idea of the definition of what we were," says Ryan Tumulty, who plays the Duke of Cornwall. "The reality and the absurdity of it came together in a way that we didn't have in the rehearsal process."

Cunis' Edgar, the son of Gloucester, begins the show as a "sweet Pierrot clown" with a blue beard. Other members of the cast describe their initial makeup as equally innocuous. Irakli Kavsadze, who plays Lear, has comical orange rings around his eyes. Irina Tsikurishvili, Paata's wife, the show's choreographer, and the actress who plays Regan, has a friendly red nose ("from sniffing cocaine," she says of her party-girl character), and a wide mouth. Tumulty has a yellow face that other cast members liken to a Mexican wrestling mask.

But as the show progresses further and further into madness, their makeup becomes much more frightening, turning them into a version of the scary clowns that Americans so hate. They smear it across their faces to become something that Tsikurishvili describes as "central European grotesque." Irina Tsikurishvili's face might be the most horrifying of all — her red mouth extends further into her cheeks, in a Glasgow smile, until she resembles the Joker.

As the makeup becomes more sinister, the actors say their movements follow in step.

"I feel it physically in my body," says Cunis. "In the beginning, I have a lot of this bouncy, clowny energy, but by the end, it's more like a cat or a serpent."

Before the show, the cast describes their ritual of getting into character: For 45 minutes, they sit in front of a mirror, applying the white base of their makeup.

"You look at yourself in the mirror, and emptiness stares back at you," says Cunis. "You get this ghostly, soul-like impression. You've sort of emptied yourself into this white face. It's very intense. When you start to add the lines, you start to rebuild a person."

The process of building a clown, and especially an alternate universe full of them, represents the theater's core values of banishing preconceptions about how theater should be created.

"I think there's some irony in it that's emblematic of Synetic's style," says Cunis. "In a lot of theater, as an actor you're discovering your character and creating this inner life which then comes out. With this, you were asked to create the outer image, and let that sink in as you become the inner. It's sort of the opposite of the Stanislavski technique."

"In the end, isn't theater really supposed to transform? Isn't it something to forget about everyday life?" says Tsikurishvili. "Progress in the theater remains, to me, 19th century stuff. We have to really destroy stereotypes. That's how you find new faces, a new angle of doing the theater."

Which is what Synetic does best. Clowns are just one part of the equation in King Lear, which also relies upon its scenery for a sense of foreboding: The show is set in a bombed-out desert outpost (the sand is actually cork, which is lighter and absorbs impact from falls). The atypical set follows King Arthur, which took place on a stage that held three inches of water.

"We're going to be underwater," Irina says, of their next show. "Let's do this on the moon."

"I wanted to do it underwater, but it requires a lot of money," says Paata.

Of course, they're clowning around. Back to King Lear:

"The thing I love about this show, as an audience, is you're sitting there and you have this world unfold before your eyes," says Tumulty. "Clowns — this is something totally foreign to you, yes? By the end, if we've done our job, you've been not only sucked into that parallel universe, but you've also realized that it is the same as the world we're living in. It's the way that we can go so far away from reality, and bring you right back to what's real."

"We've done it from absurdity," says Irina. "And yet, you are watching King Lear."

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