writers on dancing



"Forbidden Christmas" or "The Doctor and the Patient"
Etcetera Series
Terrace Theater, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
Friday, November 12, 2004

by George Jackson
copyright © 2004 by George Jackson

The painted front curtain one sees before the start of the action serves as overture. Its themes announce the distinct worlds from which Rezo Gabriadze formed "Forbidden Christmas". There are three. The oldest world, and it isn't very old, is that of middle class, burgherly Russia. It existed in the late 19th Century at the end of the Czarist era, came briefly to the fore during Kerensky's regime in the early 20th Century, and was never quite wiped out by the Bolsheviks. The curtain's overall design, a simplified form of Chagall's folkloristic cubism, and some of the objects depicted on it represent that world, its possessions, comforts and concerns.

The Bolsheviks established a communist state that glorified labor. That world appears in the factory facades and other industrial items that fleck the curtain here and there. Perhaps the drabber patches of paint also are meant to allude to communism. The third world is contemporary, that of the commercial media. It is epitomized by the white silhouette of a ballerina and the white shape of a Christmas tree star. The pros and cons of Mr. Gabriadze's morality play are its characters' encounters with the values of these three worlds.

When the curtain is drawn open, not one word is spoken for the first 15 minutes or so. We are shown a sailor, he has a girlfriend ashore, their love letters are the flag signals they send each other across the water. She, though, is swept off her feet by a man who owns a car. When the sailor discovers that he's been jilted, he grows sad, then goes mad. The form his madness takes is imagining himself transformed into a car, or rather into a chauffeur and a car. His old mother, distraught, consults a doctor. The visual way in which the story is told up to this point is that of pantomime theater. Action and mime are helped by music, props, lighting effects and an occasional written sign. The mood is mellow, the props are handsome and clever, and the overall effect is not unlike that of a partly animated, quality film for the entire family.

After the doctor's initial encounter with the madman, we follow him home and see how overworked he is. His patients phone at all hours. He longs for a full night's sleep and pines for the woman whose portrait hangs near his easy chair. In this scene the play takes a somber turn and one senses Russian literature waiting in the wings. When spoken text enters, it helps propel the story along. The mad patient, the car man, arrives on the doctor's doorstop wanting to lead him to a little girl who has swallowed iodine. Debates between the doctor and the madman are intense, their journey to the girl is an odyssey through nature's hostilities, communism's senselessness and the dark night of the soul—the doctor's soul. There is a climax. The doctor, frustrated by the madman's failures to get them to their goal and infuriated by his charming excuses and imaginative explanations, lashes out. He bullies the madman. It works as shock therapy: the man's illusion leaves him, he is no longer man and car in one. His cure, though, produces a sullen, drained state.

Just then, they arrive at their destination. There is, indeed, a little girl and she's still alive. In fact, she has almost recovered from her poisoning. The surprise at the journey's end is that the little girl is the patient's daughter with his ex-girlfriend. Despite the man's madness, he and the girlfriend became reconciled and have had a happy family life together. The only problem now is the cured man's listlessness. Miraculously, his illusion returns and the couple's happy-ever-after life continues. And the doctor? Well, he's been taught a lesson.

The visual part of the play, particularly the all-pantomime first stretch, is well made even though the car driving routine is repeated too often as the action continues. The play's second stretch, the doctor's and the mad patient's journey, verges on great drama. Imagine a Samuel Beckett script translated by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It never, though, achieves its potential. The final stretch is a let down, a stooping to holiday entertainment fit for commercial television. We are urged to have faith. In what? It doesn't seem to matter according to Mr. Gabriadze as long as the message is positive. Communism is only negative as he sees it, but he equates religion and personal madness as forces that make us feel good. Tinkerbell can't be very far away: the sentimentality of this play's ending and recent productions of James M. Barrie's "Peter Pan" are astoundingly similar.

None of the actors performed in the same style. Jon DeVries struggled valiantly to make of the doctor more than a character, giving him shadings and highlights, dimensions and substance. Mikhail Baryshnikov's sailor was a Petrouchka figure, simple and direct in his sadness, madness and sullenness. It was fun to see him rev-up and road-run as the car, at least the first couple of times he did the routine. Luis Perez (replacing Gregory Mitchell) dispatched various deus ex machina parts with wit and charm. Pilar Witherspoon's approach to the girlfriend was realist flat, and Yvonne Woods was like a young corps de ballet girl playing the ballerina's mother; in this instance she was the sailor's mother but she also got the chance to be a snowflake (in something approaching the original "Nutcracker" Snowflakes get-up with bangles). The author, Mr. Gabriadze, designed the sets, props and costumes, and directed with Dmitry Troyanovsky's assistance. Mr. Perez (ex-Joffrey Ballet) choreographed. David Meschter and again Mr. Gabriadze were responsible for music and sound. Mr. Baryshnikov's foundation and David Eden's company produced. The lighting, generally fine, was by Jennifer Tipton, but she made Mr. Baryshnikov's sailor boy look wizened at the start of the play.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, photo: Stephanie Berger:

Volume 2, No. 43
November 15, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by George Jackson


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