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Baryshnikov/Perez: Forbidden Christmas

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#1 Helene



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Posted 21 June 2004 - 05:32 PM

While our NYC crowd was out watching Musagete and, with rare exception, feeling what sounds like well-deserved outrage, I was in Berkeley hoping that Chad Jones' review of Forbidden Christmas: The Doctor and the Patient was as off-target as it sounds like Anna Kisselgoff's review of Musagete was. Alas, Mr. Jones was close to target. (As cited in Links.)

I should start with the disclaimer that I don't much like standard theater acting, with rare exceptions, so this colored my view of the piece, which I expected to be a bit more experimental. There were also a mismash of acting styles, with Pilar Witherspoon's and Jon DeVries' in the Tenessee Williams melodrama mode, Luis Perez' in a fanciful one -- it could have been Like Water for Chocolate --, and Baryshnikov's in a noticeably restrained mode. Also, a spoiler warning: I'm going to disclose plot twists.

DeVries' performance embodied both the highs and the lows: while he had a very controlled, affecting speech to the wife of 20 years he deserted and a bit of mime that was superb, he spent most of his part overacting a blustery boor. The mime scene, in which he settles into his chair to get much needed sleep after making non-stop house calls on foot in the Russian winter, was so controlled and realistic and showed such great comic timing, that I couldn't believe I was seeing the was the same performer who was stomping and yelling so tediously throughout the play. Perez' main role as an angel had more movement than speech, although he had several speaking roles, one pretty thankless. At first I was shocked that an actor would step foot on the same stage as Baryshnikov in what started out to be primarily a moving role, but when it was over I read the cast bios to find that Luis Perez had been a Joffrey principal for a number of years, and it showed, both in his movement and in the choreography, for which he is credited.

In the first 20-25 minutes of this 95-minute play, exactly one word is spoken: "Tzusanna," the name of the woman who betrays the sailor Chito as he returns from WWII. Forbidden Christman opened with an extended non-verbal sequence: Upstage right were three long, horizontal (10-15 foot) de-barked tree branches in which the ends were inserted into metal "loops" on vertical poles. The three branches were laid out so that the one most upstage was highest (about 3 feet high), and there was a crank at one end of each. Baryshnikov appeared behind three branches, which as three of the actors turned the cranks slowly turned into waves. His love, Tzuzanna, stood downstage left, facing the audience, but it was clear that she was slowly waving her little semaphore flags to him, as he waved his to her. Along came Perez as the man who seduces her, which he did by handing her a pink flower, which she accepted, while dropping her flags. Chito (Baryshnikov) then stepped over the branches to come to shore, and waited on his suitcase, until he saw the flags, and realized she had left him. He then crawled under the waves, in an attempt to drown himself.

Enter the Angel from downstage right; he sported a single wing and pushed/danced an old sewing machine across the stage. He then fancifully took measurements for his second wing, and proceeded to sew himself another wing with quite a flourish. He noticed Chito trying to drown himself, and saved Chito, leaving him alone onstage. At the same time, the traditional (I'm assuming Georgian) music in the sound design started to be drowned out by traffic noises, and a 10-foot long picture of a fancy guy in a fancy car -- representing the big money guy who seduces Tzuzanna -- was pulled across the stage across 12-15 foot wires that hang end to end. At that point, he broke and decided that he was a car.

All of this unfolded slowly through extended mime so clear that most of us would wish see in the classics, where mime rarely lasts more than a minute or two at a time, and except for Pilar Witherspoon's rather actressy rendition of Tzuzanna -- the tragic face, etc. -- it was masterfully performed and mesmerizing. (She has a lovely voice, though, and did quite well in her monologue at the end of the play.) And while the car thing started to feel a little bit like schtick after a while, Baryshnikov's Chito, who was, mercifully spared the long speech, kept that control in his acting, even when, towards the end, after being beaten and told by the Doctor that he wasn't a car, his resentment and pain could have turned into a maudlin Big Moment. When he turns back into a car at the end without muss or fuss or a knowing glance or wink to the audience, it's a rather poignant moment, as he becomes what the people around him need him to be.

Perez was saddled with a role as the voice of a puppet in the form of a telegraph worker who is making an illegal phone call over the wires on Christmas, but tries to wheedle his way out of committing to anything. The sequence seemed rather put on. In his other speaking parts, Perez also kept his style toned down, but it was really in the mime sequences in which he excelled.

If only the entire play had been silent, it would have been a stronger one: the strongest actors were the two dance mimes.

#2 dirac


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Posted 21 July 2004 - 09:46 AM

I'm sorry to hear that, but from the reviews I've read your comments are pretty on target. I missed the show when it came to the Bay Area, but I'm not too sorry, now. :) Here's John Heilpern's review in the Observer, which includes such lavish praise as "awesomely cloying":


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