HomeEntertainmentA crash nearly killed Synetic Theater’s director. In the end, it remade...

A crash nearly killed Synetic Theater’s director. In the end, it remade him.

The early morning hours of Nov. 30, 2022, are largely lost to Paata Tsikurishvili, but he does remember the throbbing that enveloped his ears before the sirens blared. As emergency responders swarmed what was left of his mangled vehicle, the chaos was split by an urgent command: “We’ve got to cut it — we’ve got to cut the car.”

A saw roared. A responder broke through the passenger-side window. Tsikurishvili felt his oxygen dwindle as he repeated his wife’s name and phone number. “I can’t breathe,” he pleaded, before it all went dark.

“I kind of died, to be frank,” says Paata. He is one of the D.C. area’s most celebrated theatrical directors, but the sequence requires no additional dramatics. “I still see that moment when I was trying to get out of the car. It kind of loops in my head.”

When Paata woke up in a Reston hospital, his head was resting on a bloodstained pillow. The pain was immense. Once his wife, Irina, and the couple’s adult son, Vato, arrived, a doctor rattled off the injuries. The gash in Paata’s head required 16 stitches. All the ribs on his left side were broken, and the same went for plenty on the right. His spine and pelvis had multiple fractures. A lung collapsed, and his kidney, liver and spleen were damaged. “Jesus,” Irina recalls hopelessly interjecting as the doctor continued. “When does this stop?”

Speaking 14 months later at Arlington’s Synetic Theater, the movement- and dance-based company the Tsikurishvilis co-founded in 2001, Paata pulls up photos of the car on his phone: a heap of metal with an obliterated backside, a couple of warped seats and a bent panel vaguely resembling a hood. Synetic Managing Director Ben Cunis remembers his shock upon seeing dash-cam footage of the collision, which occurred when traffic brought Paata to a stop on Route 66 on his way home from a late-night rehearsal. When another driver rear-ended him, Paata’s car spun into the HOV lane and a third vehicle slammed into him at full speed.

“By all rights,” Cunis says, “he should not have survived that accident.”

Paata was in critical but stable condition for more than a week, and spent nearly a month in the hospital. Yet three months later, he was able to make a surprise appearance at the opening night of Synetic’s “Beauty and the Beast.” And it took him less than a year to return to the director’s chair this fall, when he oversaw “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

With Synetic preparing to vacate the Crystal City space it has called home since 2010, Paata remounted the company’s wordless interpretation of “Romeo & Juliet” — running through March 24 — as its South Bell Street send-off. As Synetic prepares for its next chapter, Paata is approaching once-stressful uncertainty with newfound perspective.

“The accident kind of opened eyes for me to realize how precious is every breath we take,” Paata says. “We are all so busy. But now I’m like, ‘What if I had just died there?’ Every second became so valuable.”

The Tsikurishvilis have been immersed in their art since leaving their native Republic of Georgia in 1995, amid the region’s post-Soviet Union unrest, and putting down roots in the D.C. area. Paata, a trained pantomime, and Irina, an accomplished ballerina, originally scraped by while busking on the street and booking gigs at local restaurants. Since they launched Synetic, the troupe’s physical theater productions have typically been a family affair, with Paata directing, Irina choreographing and Paata’s cousin Koki Lortkipanidze composing the score. Eventually, their offspring joined the endeavor: Vato has developed into a prolific actor, director and choreographer with the company, and his sister, Ana, has also performed in numerous Synetic productions.

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So for Paata, taking a step back from Synetic’s day-to-day operations during his recovery and rehabilitation was no small thing. He acknowledges those early days, when he returned home with a neck brace and a walker, were “really rough.” Although Paata’s background in physical theater gave him a head start on mastering physical therapy — he used old mime exercises to speed the process along — he says episodes of PTSD provided their own challenge. Case in point: When Irina drove him to Synetic for the opening night of “Beauty and the Beast,” a near-collision with another vehicle led Paata to instinctively duck, cradle his head and yelp in fear.

“It was for him so shocking,” Irina says. “He got scared. At this point, I was like, ‘I want to leave the car and walk to the theater because I don’t want to be responsible for his life right now.’”

By last summer, however, Paata returned to some degree of day-to-day normalcy. And he used the waking nightmare as a creative catalyst: Paata intended to helm “War of the Worlds” for his first production back but pivoted to a new staging of “The Tell-Tale Heart” when, in a painkiller-induced stupor, he imagined getting a visit from Edgar Allan Poe in the hospital and found himself awash in inspiration.

That production, Paata says, proved to be the most personal of his career. After spending several years looking after his dementia-afflicted mother, who died shortly before his accident, Paata funneled both that experience and his own recovery into the haunting story of a crazed caretaker tasked with monitoring a mentally unstable old man.

“After ‘Tell-Tale,’” Cunis says, “I was like, ‘We’re seeing you, Paata. We’re seeing your story as a survivor, as an immigrant, as a refugee, as a father and a leader and a human.’”

When developer JBG Smith decided not to renew Synetic’s lease, forcing the company to count down its time in Crystal City, Paata figured the acclaimed 2008 production of “Romeo & Juliet” — with a set featuring spinning gears inside a sprawling, ticking clock — would be ripe for a revival.

From there, Synetic plans to reprise its pre-2010 model and present its productions at venues across the area. While Synetic isn’t rushing to lock down a full-time performance space, finding a permanent studio to host the company’s rehearsals, teen classes and summer camps represents an existential concern.

For the Tsikurishvilis, news of the impending relocation came just as Paata was turning the corner on his recovery. “Covid hit us, then a car hit me, and then the news hit with us leaving the space,” he says. But Irina quickly reiterates the couple’s newly Zen approach to such dilemmas.

“Nothing is more important than to have each other and appreciate life,” she says. “I’m taking it a completely different way. I’m completely relaxed. I’m not stressing out. We were homeless before. It’s fine. We’re going to be again.”

Grinning, Paata jumps in: “We don’t call it homeless. We’re on tour. And I would say better days are ahead.”

Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. 703-824-8060, ext. 117. synetictheater.org.

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