Synetic Theater Home of the SoldierBy Genie Baskir • Jun 5th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Synetic Theater in Crystal City, Arlington, VA
Through July 1st
90 minutes without intermission
Reviewed June 3rd, 2012
Home of the Soldier is a breathtaking illustration of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions; or maybe that one man’s insurgent is another man’s freedom fighter…or both. Director Paata Tsikurishvili and writer Ben Cunis have enticed us to endure a fully fleshed no holds barred battle ballet in which there can be no good outcome. Chances are most of us haven’t ever seen anything like this on a stage before. It is breathless and I have no bon mots or drollery this time.
What does it mean that history is written by the winners? What is the cost? Cunis did his due diligence by consulting the experts in order to write this piece. He interviewed returned soldiers from the various conflicts that are preoccupying our own country and occupying others’ countries. We are seeing the outcomes of the occupiers. What about the occupied? What do they think? Do they want the assistance and rescue that Cunis’ champions claim to be proffering to them? This piece doesn’t answer any of these questions; it only artfully and devastatingly draws the picture and challenges us to feel the fear and revulsion and adoration of the humanity of all the players. Do these insurgents have consciences? Do our soldiers? Post traumatic stress disorder is an emotional contest between the will to survive and the memory of what it takes to survive combined with need for self forgiveness for living at all. In the end we were all stunned into silence.
Home of the Soldier is stunning and dazzling and terrifying and imbued this reviewer with emotions that she thought were put away a generation ago. Your reviewer’s existence is predicated on a mass murder so catastrophic that some choose to deny the fire occurred rather than comprehend the impact on the survivors, the first generation descendents and the criminals that carried out the murder. While this reviewer had no relatives because all were dead, her daughter has an extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins and even grandmothers. Families regenerate, successful lives can be lived, but peace never comes to the survivors. This same daughter is also studying with Synetic Theatre and I’m sure that no one in the company would suspect that this charming young woman could relate the first hand recollections that are not dissimilar to the action playing out onstage. For the first time in 63 years of being in the United States my daughter’s grandmother confessed and expressed anger and rage at what happened to her. This grandmother has enviable wealth, mediocre health and great comfort, but she anticipates death because she thinks she will be reunited with the dead; much as the dead in this piece still take care of one another in the grave. The emotion of this scene at the end of the story is riveting.
Irina Tsikurishvili and Ben Cunis have choreographed a war both shocking and astonishing in its scope onstage. As the battles play out our sympathies pass back and forth between the occupying soldiers…our guys…and the insurgents who are the collateral damage of realpolitik. The dance is athletic and balletic and desperate. The frenzy of the action and the desperation to live all captured in light and sound and movement on a set of such minimal affect is startling and is an exemplification of the astonishing talent that Synetic Theatre nurtures.
Again, composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze hypnotizes us with a searing score and Irakli Kavsadze’s sound design puts us into the missions and battles in front of us. As our heads pound from the noise of war, our recruits gear up for deployment and conflict, get hazed and accepted as brothers into their unit and become the ersatz sons of a by the book, yet humane, sergeant (Joseph Carlson) who is mother, father and confidant to the new recruits and the combat veterans. An insurgent group, led by a woman, of the occupied is fighting a resistance against our military heroes and she is using hostages as leverage.
Our protagonist is the Son (Vato Tsikurishvili), a new recruit. He is not a military type yet volunteers for combat along with his friend, the Kid (Zana Gankhuyag). The Son’s first kill is a young man and his revulsion is transparent. The Son is helpless to save the Kid in an attack and he descends into a fugue state of desolation while, in the meantime, everyone is his brother’s or sister’s keeper; but the Son does have his own reason for choosing to go to war. The female soldiers are no less fierce than the men and their collective desperation to survive is no less resolute than the desperation of the insurgents.
A war is being staged in front of the audience. Bombs are going off and grenades and land mines are wreaking their destruction and human beings are the wreckage and the redemption. As the body count mounts the choreography gets more desperate. More battles and missions are being played out on a giant screen above the live action and Andrew K. Griffin’s lights are blinding us and Lortkipanidze’s sound is pounding us and our heroes are dying and we don’t know why. The first fear is the fear of noise, because noise means action and action means death and the action doesn’t stop. The fear never leaves and our soldiers must constantly reassure each other of each one’s willingness to die for the other. There are no John Wayne heroic speeches and no Steven Spielberg emotional manipulation, because the audience is in the war and there is no time for maudlin rubbish. We have to survive, too.
Daniel Pinha’s set is remarkable in its complicated paucity and the use to which the minimal accoutrements and details are put is brilliant. This is not a show for the fearful or the faint of heart. This show is manic, profane, vulgar and terrifying. The talent is awe-inspiring and the emotion is cathartic. Cunis has us live and die vicariously in the safety of a theatre while our real soldiers live this piece every single day and it is no show. Synetic Theatre has constructively embarked on a principled, yet not doctrinal, mission to remind us all of the safety and cleanliness and trustworthiness of American life and we should thank it and our lucky stars for being here and not there.
When Paata approached me about the creation of a new piece about a soldier’s journey through a modern war, I was simultaneously excited and nervous. I was excited because it is a deep, challenging subject which incites powerful emotion, a subject that is oft-portrayed, often poorly, and one which demands first-hand experience to really understand. I was nervous for exactly the same reasons.
Research was eye-opening. We found ourselves surrounded with a wealth of literature and documentary footage. The best input, however, came from the first-hand accounts. Prior to the rehearsal process, as well as during, I had the opportunity to interview some soldiers, and their honesty, curiosity and support help belay some of the nerves, and we, in turn, honored requests for anonymity. Additionally, the miracle of modern technology has allowed countless soldiers to share their experiences online,and the amount of raw footage to be found is stunning: helmet camera footage of battles, and hand-cam or cell phone camera footage of soldiers waiting, working, dancing (surprisingly ubiquitous) and talking among their teams. There are some wonderful documentaries out there, but nothing beats the soldier’s direct perspective.
Throughout it all I was constantly moved by the utter humanity of these men and women, coupled with extraordinary bravery and willingness to sacrifice. It is that balance that makes their stories so amazing to me. The act of heroism is not performed by machines but by people. Speaking with soldiers, looking into the nature of war in the 21st century, into the nature of being the occupying force, I wanted to explore the gamut of experience (though I know I can barely scratch the surface); not to pass judgment nor propagandize, but to say that heroes are not so because they are perfect, or everyone around them is perfect, but because they act heroically in spite of imperfection.
My deepest respect and gratitude goes out to our troops, and my sincere thanks, especially to the soldiers who interviewed with us. I am continually inspired by you.
Photos by Johnny Shryock Photography
- Son: Vato Tsikurishvili
- Prisoner: Irakli Kavsadze
- Kid: Zana Gankhuyag
- Native Mother: Jodi Niehoff
- Drill Sergeant/Sarge: Joseph Carlson
- Fixer/Ensemble Soldier: Victoria Bertocci
- Strikes/Ensemble Soldier: Dallas Tolentino
- Jackal/Ensemble Soldier: Matthew Ward
- Native Soldier: Pasquale Guiducci
- Rev/Ensemble Soldier: Austin Johnson
- Sauce/Ensemble Soldier: Jessica Thorne
- Doc/Ensemble Soldier: Ben Arden
- Native Sniper: Kathryn Conners
- Native Soldier: Philip Fletcher
- Director: Paata Tsikurishvili
- Stage Manager: Donna Stout
- Writer: Ben Cunis
- Choreography: Irina Tsikurishvili, Ben Cunis
- Resident Composer and Music Director: Konstantine Lortkipanidze
- Lighting Design: Andrew F. Griffith
- Sound Design: Irakli Kavsadze
- Set Design: Daniel Pinha
- Costumes: Laree Lentz
- Technical Direction: Phil Charwood
- Production Supervisor: Erin Baxter
Disclaimer: Synetic Theater provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8155.
Genie Baskir is a theatrical producer. She worked in radio production and direction for many years and gravitated to theatre when family members became involved with the stage.