Anastasia Rurikov Simes’ designs give extra edge to Synetic Theater’s wordless but highly passionate productions.
By Ann Geracimos
From the opening scenes of Synetic Theater’s acclaimed version of “Antony and Cleopatra,” earlier this year, Irina Tsikurishvili commanded center stage as the infatuated lover and doomed queen. She had heavy competition from the equally intense and passionate Ben Cunis, playing Antony, but her svelte figure and gorgeously colored attire grabbed the eye at every turn. Thanks to the work of Anastasia Rurikov Simes – a triple threat as Synetic’s designer of set, costumes, and props – Cleopatra was transformed into a devilish seductress whom Cecil B. DeMille might have envisioned in one of his over-the-top epics. Her navel, neck, and arm jewelry glittered as her bright blue, red, and gold gowns swirled in rhythm with her long dark tresses. It was a picture as exotic as an old-fashioned travelogue but up to the moment in its intensity and dramatic scope.
A wordless production like this one, full of such physicality (choreography by Tsikurishvili and fight scenes by Cunis), naturally put a great deal of attention on visual effects. Simes didn’t miss a chance to play up the symbols embodied in both the Egyptian and Roman worlds. Male actors – Roman and Egyptian warriors – were suitably encased in a variety of traditional dark leather and protective metal doublets. The outstanding exception was Cleopatra’s spirit servant, Mardian (Alex Mills), a sensuous serpentine character in black body suit and sphinx-like headgear. His face was painted gold, the color of crowns and drinking vessels that flash throughout. A chorus ensemble was adorned in white masks and black and red costumes. A diaphanous pastel gown was reserved for Cleopatra’s rival, a mate of convenience for Antony, to contrast with the fiery bold shades worn by the glamorous Queen of the Nile.
“I wanted to have it [set, props, costumes] all basically Art Deco,
realizing how close this connects to Egyptian form,” says the Russian-born Simes, an M.F.A. graduate of the Russian Institute of Cinematography who is married to Dimitri K. Simes, head of the Nixon Center and publisher and CEO of the Center’s bimonthly National Interest journal.
“Nothing is more dramatic than black, red, white, and gold. I guess that is the main thing,” Simes explains. “Everything I’m doing with Paata[Synetic founding artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili] and Irina has symbolic meaning.” Solid gold in Egypt, she notes, was the color of deities. In the beginning, before she has power, Cleopatra is in white and gold like many Egyptians. “When Antony comes, she is dressed in turquoise, an exotic color, to impress him with her beauty and show the riches of Egypt. Then, a transition again, she is in red and black – the most intense – in a more Roman style, because based on historical research she liked to dress that way, not emphasizing her Egyptian style. In her last transition she has become one of the Egyptian gods, in black and gold.”
Black and white had a powerful hold over Simes’ early life, when she says she was influenced by such classic silent movies as Ivan the Terrible. Eisenstein’s Metropolis was one of her favorites. Working in a theater without words she found ideal because “I tend to think symbolically. We try to go for the timeless,” she says of the close relationship among the principal creators.
Trained early as a painter, she intends to take a “sabbatical” from Synetic after doing as many as 12 productions in the past six years. She plans a solo exhibit in Moscow this fall.