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Flash Review 2, 7-2: My Misha the Car
'Doctor' Needs One

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2004 Aimee Ts’ao

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BERKELEY -- The moment is magical -- in essence, a Chagall painting come to life. A tailor/angel (Luis Perez) with one wing enters pushing a sewing machine on a table. He stops to take measurements of his head and his arm, then cuts something on the table. He picks it up. It is a second wing which he holds in place as he exits. So begins "Forbidden Christmas, or the Doctor and the Patient," by Rezo Gabriadze, the Georgian writer, director, designer and puppeteer, with Mikhail Baryshnikov, the renowned dancer, appearing as an actor, seen in its June 16 West Coast premiere at Berkeley's Zellerbach Playhouse. Given the number of times I have wanted to invoke the sentiments of "The Emperor's New Clothes" when reviewing work connected with those considered to be god-like performers or choreographers, that Emperor, by now, would have an enormous wardrobe. Since all the clothes are invisible, it is a moot point. In considering Gabriadze's latest play, commissioned by Baryshnikov, I can actually use a twist on the old Hans Christian Anderson tale. Here, Baryshnikov plays Chito, a man who thinks he's a car. As an actor, it is his job to make Chito's own internal world and insanity visible to the audience, rather than waiting for an observer to point out the fraudulent fantasy fueled by conformity. The result is still absurd.

Judging from the other reviews of "Forbidden Christmas" that were in my press packet, after premiering at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and playing the Spoleto Festival USA before the Berkeley performances, the piece is still being developed on the road, much like a Broadway show in out-of-town runs before opening in New York. Admittedly, some of the reviewers may not have been describing the play accurately, or perceived it differently, but the discrepancies between their accounts, as well as an outdated press release, indicate that the piece is in the ongoing process of being edited. That is a good thing, as my initial impression is that it still needs some tinkering and tightening up. There are many delightful elements and ideas, from the low-tech scenery to exquisite lighting by Jennifer Tipton, from the gentle humor to the emotionally moving stories of love and loss, but the whole never quite gels.

Again, advance publicity using words like surreal and absurdist does nothing to really identify the genre of the play. In fact, the very afternoon I saw it, I had spent over half an hour in line at a police station waiting to report the attempted theft of my car. The demented Irish woman ahead of me was having a dreadful time sticking to the story of how someone had stolen a check from her apartment, where she had "checkbooks lying all over the place," and had cashed the forgery. She repeatedly turned to the others in line to explain that San Francisco had become a horrible city and she really needed to move away. Ideally she wanted to go back to "Ireland where the economy was booming so much that even Russians were moving there in droves." Our collective eyeballs were exhausted from so much rolling. So after this bit of reality, "Forbidden Christmas" seemed quite normal.

I suspect that there are several reasons that the play hasn't reached its potential. First, Gabriadze says in interviews that he usually spends months developing new work, using a process of refining improvisation while searching for a clear artistic theme. After writing scripts for films and working in the theater, he started his own 48-seat cafe theater in Tbilisi, the capitol of Georgia, in 1981, and now works mainly with puppets. For this collaboration with Baryshnikov and four American actors, John DeVries, Luis Perez, Pilar Witherspoon and Yvonne Woods, he had the obstacles of not speaking English, and therefore communicating through an interpreter ("Poetry is what gets lost in translation." -- Robert Frost), using human actors instead of his familiar puppets and having much less time than he is accustomed to. Fortunately, most of his material is derived from his childhood memories of the town of Kutaisi, which lends both the simple charm of youthful observation and shows the human, as opposed to political, toll taken on people by Stalinist repression.

The first 20 minutes of "Forbidden Christmas" are a wordless explanation, performed to music that evokes the time and place -- 1952 and the provincial Georgia -- of how Chito (Baryshnikov), a sailor returning home after serving his country, comes to believe he is a car. When his fiancee Tsisana betrays him by marrying another man, he watches, grief-stricken, as she drives away with her new husband in a car. He attempts to drown himself, but is saved by an angel. He stubs his toe on an automobile window crank which he attaches to his shirt pocket, where it becomes the starter crank of the car is now thinks he is. He cranks, the engine turns over, he vibrates happily while waiting to shift into gear and then takes off. I can accept that Chito loses his mind from a broken heart and that the car literally becomes the vehicle for his hopes to bring his fiance back. The story falls apart on Christmas Eve, after Chito and the Doctor wander through a snowstorm on their way to treat a very ill young girl. The Doctor fights with him and tells him to stop pretending he's a car, which he does. Then we find out that Chito had married Tsisana after all, that they've been together for seven years, and that they have a 6-year-old daughter, the girl who needs to be treated. Tsisana had left her new husband almost immediately after the wedding when she realized how much Chito really loved her and could accept that he thought he was a car because he was a good husband and father. So why did he stay crazy for all those years? It may be his way of coping with living in an oppressive society, but no matter how surreal this play is supposed to be, it still must have some internal logic and it must be consistent within that framework for the play to work.

The other point which disturbs me is that once the characters begin talking, they also begin to explain why they do what they do and talk about how they feel about things instead of having their personalities revealed by their actions and reactions. Obviously, it's much harder to write a play that is constructed to show rather than tell, and it takes more time. Maybe in a few months the work will evolve enough that these problems will be solved.

Looking at the broader picture, I am curious about Baryshnikov's future plans, both for his own performing career and the multi-disciplinary "Baryshnikov Arts Center" currently under development in New York City. I am always in favor of famous people using their stature to further worthy causes, be they social, political, or artistic, as I wrote in a previous White Oak review. Baryshnikov is not a brilliant actor. He does a good job and he deserves whatever pleasure he derives from continuing to perform, but his time and money would be better spent concentrating on one project and achieving either a truly magical performance or a crucible of creativity. As for the arts center, I can't help but think of Diaghilev and how he brought together some of the most talented composers, choreographers and scenic designers of the early 20th century. History has shown that in more than 70 years, no one has come close to that kind of collaboration. What is missing, of course, is someone with the same intense personal charisma and refined aesthetic taste, who can attract artists and raise money. Providing the physical plant is the first step, but what will develop without an alchemist? I am dying of curiosity to see what happens.

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