Twenty years ago, when Synetic Theater first invited audiences to “Host and Guest,” director Paata Tsikurishvili had conceived of the production as his troupe’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The dance- and movement-based play, adapted from a 19th-century epic poem by Georgian writer Vazha Pshavela, is a visceral depiction of ethnic hatred and the unending cycles of violence that result. By dwelling on the senselessness of such conflicts, Tsikurishvili thought, perhaps Synetic could play some small part in stifling them.
For the fledgling theater, founded one year earlier, “Host and Guest” was an identity-shaping hit. In 2008, Synetic was preparing an adaptation of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” when news broke that Russia had invaded Tsikurishvili’s native Georgia. So “Cabinet” was shelved and “Host and Guest” remounted.
Then came this past February and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“When Ukraine happened, I had no less reaction or feeling,” Tsikurishvili says. “It woke up wounds, and it woke up the feelings that we were trying to forget.”
So two decades after first producing “Host and Guest” — and 14 years after reviving it — Synetic has made another return trip to the show that put it on the map. Again directed by Tsikurishvili and choreographed by his wife and Synetic co-founder, Irina Tsikurishvili, writer Roland L. Reed’s play is onstage at the troupe’s Crystal City theater through Oct. 2.
“Unfortunately, it’s as relevant today as it was 20 years ago, and I’m afraid it’s going to be relevant in 20 years and 50 years and so on, because it touches on the essence of human nature,” says returning actor Dan Istrate. “I don’t know what it says about our level of consciousness as the human race, because I feel like we are stuck in the same place.” (Istrate, who plays the lead role of Joqola, previously played the part in the 2008 show, as well as traveling productions in 2003 and 2012.)
The plot of “Host and Guest” is simple: A Christian hunter named Zviadauri is lost in the Caucasus Mountains when he crosses paths with Joqola, a Muslim member of a warring clan. Joqola lowers his rifle and welcomes Zviadauri into his home, promising safety and hospitality, but his fellow townspeople are less hospitable. Old feuds are rekindled, and bloodletting ensues.
After the original production at D.C.’s Church Street Theater, Synetic took “Host and Guest” to New York and Philadelphia, then remounted it in 2004 at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre. The Spectrum again played host for the 2008 staging, and Synetic took the production to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in 2012.
“[‘Host and Guest’] played a huge role to establish what Synetic is, where we come from,” Paata Tsikurishvili says. “We were playing a production with 14 actors on the stage at the Church Street Theater in Dupont Circle, and we had maybe 10 spectators because just nobody knew who we were. But out of 10, five became our donors and supporters and board members. So that’s how it started.”
Tsikurishvili isn’t opposed to reimagining revivals of other Synetic productions. Last fall, the theater fused a remounting of its 2007 production “The Fall of the House of Usher” with an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” to create a new show billed as “The Madness of Poe.” Next month, Tsikurishvili plans to present a drastically redesigned version of Synetic’s 2005 “Dracula.” But aside from some adjustments to the set, to account for a larger space at Synetic’s current home, he has opted for a faithful remounting of “Host and Guest.”
“I try to keep ‘Host and Guest’ mostly untouched because it’s classic,” Tsikurishvili says. “It really doesn’t need anything.”
The “Host and Guest” cast helps maintain that continuity. Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili originally played Joqola and his wife, though only Irina is reprising her role. Original cast member and Synetic staple Philip Fletcher also returns. The same goes for Irakli Kavsadze, who first played Zviadauri — the titular guest — but has aged into the part of a villager originally played by his father (famed Georgian actor Kakhi Kavsadze).
There’s also a new generation. Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili’s son, Vato — who saw the original production as a child — now plays Zviadauri. Other members of the ensemble were toddlers or not even born when “Host and Guest” was first staged.
“When I did it [almost] 20 years ago, I used to be one of the youngest in the cast, and now I’m one of the oldest,” Istrate says. “It’s a such a switch. It’s a different dynamic. But I feed off their energy because I see myself in the way they want to prove themselves, they want to show that they can jump the highest or they want to do all these crazy things.”
Paata Tsikurishvili takes pride in spreading this story — considered a touchstone of Georgian culture — and shining a light on long-standing regional conflicts in the Caucasus that he feels Western audiences have only recently started to understand. But as Synetic produces “Host and Guest” in response to an international act of aggression for the third time, Tsikurishvili hopes he won’t have a reason to stage the show again.
“It’s not about the war,” Tsikurishvili says of the show. “It’s about the moral. It’s about the values that we all are really fighting for, including America. It’s the same values. It’s the freedom. It’s respect for others, respect for different ethnicities. It’s about all humanity.”
Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. 703-824-8060, ext. 117. synetictheater.org.
Dates: Through Oct. 2.