Christmas" or "The Doctor and the Patient"
Terrace Theater, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
Friday, November 12, 2004
by George Jackson
© 2004 by George Jackson
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
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.
Baryshnikov, photo: Stephanie Berger:
2, No. 43
November 15, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by George Jackson
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
Kathrine Sorley Walker
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