- The Washington Times - Friday, November 12, 2004

“Forbidden Christmas or the Doctor and the Patient,” playing through this weekend at the Kennedy Center, is a new work by the playwright, film director, painter and puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze. The world he has constructed onstage has elements of the fantasylike, small-scale charm of Joseph Cornell’s miniature boxed collages.

Mr. Gabriadze sets his tale in the Stalinist Georgia of his youth, using his own collage of sights and sounds — Russian songs, mime, shifting scenery, puppets, the roar of a throbbing car engine.

His story — by turns sad, funny, powerful and absurd — concerns a sailor named Chito, played by Mikhail Baryshnikov. “Forbidden Christmas” is the dancer’s first dramatic stage role since he appeared on Broadway 15 years ago in the award-winning production of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” Mr. Baryshnikov, whose performances defined male dancing in the latter part of the 20th century, commissioned this production.

The Russian dancer is the emotional center of the play, not only because of his pivotal role but also for the intensity, honesty and commitment he brings to the part.

We see Mr. Baryshnikov first in silhouette at the back of the stage against a horizon of sky and water, standing watch as a toy-size double-masted schooner sails across the horizon, pulled by wires that give it the jerky passage of the fake swans in Act II of “Swan Lake.”

Next he stands on an imaginary deck — sturdy, young, full of hope and love, semaphoring to the sweetheart he left behind. In mimed sequences, we see her go off with another man and later, as a bride, break the unhappy news to the returning sailor.

Chito is crushed. He sits alone at the side of the stage, utterly bereft. Slowly his face, a mask of pain, crumbles. Tears trickle down his cheeks. The sight is so understated, so devastatingly real, that our hearts are gripped.

Deranged by grief, Chito embraces a fantasy: He becomes a car.

Deluded he may be, a nutcase even, but his joy and ours are palpable as he turns on his ignition, twisting the ignition hanging from his shirt pocket, revving up his engine, his body vibrating, quivering with delight. He shifts into gear and careens off — circling the stage, hurtling into barrel turns and skidding halfway across the stage to a stop, legs stiff and heels digging in.

Mr. Baryshnikov’s wordless movements here bring to mind both the humor and the poignancy of Charlie Chaplin.

This first section of the play is almost wordless — a mimed drama. Later, there is talk, and in the final scenes, there is an outpouring of words, as if all the pent-up emotions in the air finally found voice.

Along the way, Chito encounters the overworked, underpaid doctor of the play’s title (Jon DeVries), who treats Chito with wry and gentle humor. Other characters make brief appearances, in particular an angel with large paper wings and red spats who was played by Gregory Mitchell in the performance reviewed here. (For the remaining performances, Luis Perez replaces Mr. Mitchell, who has withdrawn from the production for medical reasons.)

At the play’s climax, Chito and the doctor are trudging through a blinding snowstorm, the doctor dyspeptic and exhausted, Chito exhorting him to press on to save the life of a sick child.

The doctor explodes in anger, shattering Chito’s illusion that he is a car. The denouement that follows is full of surprising twists and revealing insights about the nature of love and illusions.

Pilar Witherspoon and Yvonne Woods complete the excellent cast in this imaginative theatrical tour de force.

***1/2

WHAT: “Forbidden Christmas or the Doctor and the Patient” with Mikhail Baryshnikov

WHEN: 2 and 7:30 p.m. today, 2 p.m. tomorrow

WHERE: Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

TICKETS: $35

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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