Theater review: ‘In Paris’ at The Broad Stage
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Even when he’s not dancing, it’s a joy to watch Mikhail Baryshnikov move. He hardly dances at all in “In Paris,” a wispy stage adaptation of Ivan Bunin’s short story that had its U.S. premiere Wednesday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Just a spinning flourish at the conclusion of this decidedly minor-scale, though ultimately touching, play.
But this is an artist who has learned to act with his spine. Character is a matter of carriage, posture, physical coordination. Standing still offers him a psychological window — and why shouldn’t it when there are so many possible ways to hold yourself?
Baryshnikov’s physical approach serves him well in a performance piece that doesn’t give him much more than a dramatic scenario to work with. Directed by Dmitry Krymov, who also adapted the text, this production (performed in French and Russian with English supertitles) is long on mood and atmosphere, short on action. It’s really just an outline of a story, given a sophisticated and often haunting theatrical airbrushing.
Those who approach the work with modest expectations will be better able to appreciate its dreamlike pathos. Those who enter expecting a tour de force by a ballet legend in a tale by a Russian Nobel Prize winner may feel as though they were served a meal consisting only of amuse-bouches. Baryshnikov plays an old mustachioed Russian general living alone in Paris in the 1930s. An exile from his homeland, he subsists on the memories of his former glory before his White Army was defeated by the Red Army in the Russian Civil War and before his wife ran off with “a handsome little Greek boy” in their second year of marriage.
The majestic backdrop of the city, conjured by scenic designer Maria Tregubova (who also did the superb costumes) with drawings on placards and blown-up postcards, throws into relief his loneliness. Later, the grandeur of Paris will magnify his ardor for Olga Alexandrovna, a much younger Russian waitress (Anna Sinyakina, leading actress in Krymov’s Laboratory) he encounters at a small Russian cafe near his apartment.
Olga, whose husband is off fighting in Yugoslavia, grows fond of the general’s visits to her workplace, where she offers him pickled cucumber soup in what becomes an evening ritual. The words between them are few and circular. They don’t need to say very much because they share the same experience of living between worlds.
Strangers find each other and relieve for a moment their burden of isolation. Love’s basic paradigm is more clearly visible in this somberly romantic tale of two brooding Russians adrift in Paris. So little occurs onstage, yet the act of dressing alone takes on monumental significance when fate draws the lonely together. Baryshnikov doesn’t have many lines, but he makes a soliloquy of shaving and putting on the general’s fetching black suit.
The mise-en-scène is simple, though often strikingly so. The floating projection of English supertitles, sometimes onto the performers themselves, is a nice way of paying homage to the literary source material. Like any good work of fiction, the production doesn’t want to do the imaginative work for us — it excites our sensibility but leaves us to develop the images in our private darkrooms. (Damir Ismagilov’s lighting and Tei Blow’s audio and video design work in tandem to foster this participation.)
The sadness inherent in “In Paris” is never allowed to become doleful. Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography inspires a playful theatricality in the supporting ensemble, which gambols about with game insouciance. Similarly, the music by Dmitry Volkov, a mix of choral numbers and arias, has a sense of humor even when supplying operatic heft. A toy rat and a flying sequence add to the poetic sprightliness.
The performance, I’ll admit, seemed rather insubstantial as it was taking place, as though Krymov wasn’t quite able to effectively concentrate his enviable resources. But the piece has continued to resonate inside me, not unlike the memory of past loves, long extinguished though never completely forgotten.
-- Charles McNulty
‘In Paris,’ The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Call for schedule. Ends April 21. $65-$135 www.thebroadstage.com or (310) 434-3200. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes