HomeEntertainmentAt Synetic Theater, a son follows in his father’s footsteps

At Synetic Theater, a son follows in his father’s footsteps


Vato Tsikurishvili clearly recalls the early-morning hours of Nov. 30 last year, when his father, Synetic Theater co-founder Paata Tsikurishvili, suffered life-threatening injuries in a collision involving multiple cars on Route 66.

But as Vato, a 31-year-old performer with the Crystal City-based troupe, rattles off the details from that night — how Paata was right behind him when they left rehearsal for Synetic’s “Snow Maiden” around midnight, and how his uneasiness grew as his father never made it home — he grinds to a halt when describing the initial image of Paata bedridden at a Reston hospital.

“Dude, when I walked into that thing? I can’t even,” Vato says. “It was the most unreal experience ever.”

The color had drained from his father’s face, Vato recalls, and a sizable gash across the top of his head left a bloodstain on his pillow. As Paata drifted in and out of consciousness, muttering in his native Georgian that “they got me good,” a doctor listed Paata’s injuries to Vato and his mother, Irina: lacerations to his kidney and spleen, a punctured lung, five broken vertebrae and myriad other fractures.

“I just got lower and lower, and I ended up sitting on the floor,” Vato says. “Then watching Pops, tears are there. But I know my mom’s here, and I’m like, ‘I can’t let it out.’ Somehow I held it together, I guess.”

His father remained in critical but stable condition for days but is now resting at home, where he’s on his way to a full recovery. But with Paata still months away from resuming full-time responsibilities at Synetic, the movement- and dance-based company he founded with his wife in 2001, managing director Ben Cunis decided to push a Paata-helmed production of “War of the Worlds” to next season and replace it with a revival of the company’s 2014 staging of “Beauty and the Beast” that runs through April 2.

Although Cunis directed the original production — a haunting adaptation of the French fairy tale — he recruited the assistance of a co-director for this remounting: Vato, a performer for the troupe since 2007, who in recent years oversaw Synetic’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “The Servant of Two Masters.”

“Vato has been starting to put his stamp on Synetic’s shows more and more,” Cunis says. “He has directed his own shows. He has created his own pieces. He came in at, like, 16 years old. Now, he’s a leader and people look to him.”

As Paata — a trained mime who married a ballerina — says in a Zoom interview, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” He recalls that when his son was a toddler in Georgia, before the family immigrated to the United States in 1995 to escape the former Soviet state’s unrest, Vato would observe Paata’s onstage performances and replicate the movements with uncanny accuracy. As the Tsikurishvilis arrived in the D.C. area, initially scraping by performing in restaurants or on street corners, their son picked up more tricks of the trade.

But Vato ended up spending much of his childhood in Columbus, Ohio — where he lived with his grandfather, Arnold Kvetenadze, then a gymnastics coach at Ohio State — while his parents raised his younger sister, Anna, and built Synetic into an one-of-a-kind institution. Returning as a teenager, Vato quickly realized his parents were so consumed by their work that if he wanted to spend time with them, he’d have to join them in their endeavor. So Vato quit his high school football team and began regularly performing in Synetic’s shows.

“If you ask me what I want to do, I still don’t really know,” Vato says. “I just wanted to be around my folks. That was all I knew. I never thought of this as a career. I just loved it.”

“Vato took to it like a fish to water, of course,” adds Cunis, who was a performer with Synetic at the time. “He was able to just do things that all of us were struggling to figure out.”

Vato has since appeared in more than 30 Synetic productions and earned seven Helen Hayes Award nominations as a performer, choreographer and director. At this year’s awards ceremony, to be held in May, he’s up against his father in the best director category. (“I hope he can beat me,” Paata says with a grin. “That’s the goal.”)

The most recent production Vato starred in was also the most emotionally taxing: “Snow Maiden,” which opened the day after Paata’s accident. Hours before the opening-night performance, Vato went to the junkyard where Paata’s Prius had been towed and was brought to tears when he came across the mass of mangled metal. After ripping open what was left of the door, Vato salvaged what he could — his father’s phone, a pair of shattered glasses, some vapes and a flickering laptop — then went to Synetic and, after talk of postponing the show, stepped onstage.

“I was a mess,” he says. “But it’s the escape, right? It became that release for everything.”

With Vato and Cunis co-directing “Beauty and the Beast” on short notice, they acknowledge that a straightforward re-creation of the 2014 staging — in which Vato played the Beast — would have been the simplest option for all involved. But the duo has committed to reimagining Synetic’s dark take on the classic Gothic romance. Designs have been updated, movements have been adjusted and the adaptation has been rewritten to focus more on Belle, the titular “Beauty.”

Observing rehearsals via Zoom, Paata says he was struck by the cast and crew’s fortitude, and credits Cunis with stepping up to steer the theater in his absence. But naturally, he holds particular pride for a son following in his father’s footsteps — just like he did as a toddler back in Georgia.

“He’s doing it from the heart,” Paata says. “I can tell also it’s in his DNA. Talent is one thing, and then training is another, and experience is another one. And he has it all.”

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

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