Sleeping Beauty

Once upon a dream this fall, the creative team members at Arlington’s Synetic Theater began imagining how they might stage the classic fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. 

This month, those dreams will unfurl onstage in Crystal City, when the troupe that specializes in Eastern European movement theater opens Sleeping Beauty as its annual holiday production. Like the “silent Shakespeare” series that the company is famous for, the fairy tale will include no dialogue; Synetic will instead convey the story of the slumbering princess through dance, mime and music.

“We are starting to dream about it,” says Irina Tsikurishvili, the choreographer who will also play Maleficent in the show. She and her husband, Paata, who will direct Sleeping Beauty, along with dramaturg Nathan Weinberger, talk about the show during their first week of rehearsals.

“We are messing around with ideas and choreographing,” Paata says, sitting in the company’s underground rehearsal space, which the company rents at a bargain price from the Voronado Corporation, thanks to progressive arts-friendly policies in Arlington County. As passers-by in the Crystal City’s labyrinth of passages watch through the windows, the performers and creative team experiment with movement, music and gesture. Weinberger also looks on, taking notes and plotting out the storyline. For source material, he and the Tsikurishvilis are drawing on the original 17th-century story by Charles Perrault, as well as the adaption written by the Grimm Brothers a century later.

“Perrault wrote an extremely short story. It gives us so much to put in the middle, and not follow Disney or anybody in our version,” says Irina. 

The tale may be European in origin, but aesthetically, Synetic is looking East. The actors playing Briar Rose and the Prince are both of Asian descent, so costume designer Kendra Rai has been given freedom to explore colors and designs more associated with Mongolia than medieval France. “We’ll have an Asian influence, but it will be more suggestive rather than literal,” Paata explains. 

Eliza Smith and Zana Gankhuyag both grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and were active in Synetic’s teen theater training programs; casting them as leads now is natural. Via social media, the company has already gotten positive feedback for selecting Asian actors to play protagonists rather than villains. This was flattering, but the truth is, say the Tsikurishvilis, the bad-girl role in Sleeping Beauty was already taken.

“We have a great witch right here,” says Paata.Irina, who trained as a classical ballerina in her native Georgia, has played plenty of conflicting femme fatales in Synetic productions, including Medea, Carmen and a female Iago. Her Maleficent will be complex, with reasons for crossing over to the dark side beyond just not getting invited to the princess’ christening ceremony.

“We are giving her a backstory,” Weinberger says, “But this is not going to be Angelina Jolie.” 

“I don’t think she’s bad, she must have some reason,” says Irina. “People have to feel for me.” 

There’s a trend, Weinberger notes, to reimagine fairy tales through the viewpoint of a maligned

villain. It began with Wicked, ran through Disney’s Maleficent and even turned up at Synetic two years ago, when a witch-like narrator played the only speaking role in Beauty and the Beast. Like that last foray into fairy tale, Synetic’s Sleeping Beauty will use projections and other visual tricks to make the performance a bit frightening, but not too scary.

“It’s dark, because it’s Grimms’—there are the woods and that dragon at the end—but it’s for families,” says Weinberger. 

“The goal is to treat the story with Synetic language—to create a magic world, so to speak—and be family friendly,” says Paata. “It’s the holidays.” 

“Whatever holiday you celebrate, it’s about bringing people together,” says Weinberger. “Theater is something you can do together.” 


The show runs from Dec. 7 through Jan. 8, 2017. For tickets, go to SyneticTheater.org

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