No, we aren’t in Paris. But the play we saw Friday night just about makes up for that fact. The legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov brought a production to Berkeley Rep, and it was not to be missed. Which I probably shouldn’t say, since it closes today. Ah well, quelle fromage. (which is my favorite, and perhaps only, multi-lingual pun)
Here’s what the Berkeley Rep artistic director, Tony Taccone, has to say:
In Paris uses a nuanced, complex theatrical vocabulary of music, mime, video and excerpts of Russian and French to explore the relationship between an older man and a younger woman and its larger theme of profound loneliness.
I don’t know why he says “excerpts of Russian and French”, since the entire play is in those languages, with surtitles becoming part of the stage decor. Maybe most of the stage decor, since the director, Dmitry Krymov, is a leading light of what is called Russian Experimental Theater, and the set consists of a very steeply raked black stage.
The few bits of furniture that appear are surrealistic. The car is just a large poster held up by the actors, moving on a large stage turntable.
There are two characters in the play, based on a short story by Russian Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin. Baryshnikov plays the General, while the young woman is brilliantly interpreted by Anna Sinyakina. Four additional performers provide all the music, largely by blowing into bottles and beating boxes as drums.
One might say that there are two schools of thought regarding how to construct a play.
1) Lots of plot. This is the Shakespearian technique. His plays have plots layered over plots, mixed in with subplots and side plots. Many characters, each with his own motivations and machinations. There is always something going on.
2) Not much plot, great exposition. That’s what’s happening In Paris. The play is created from a short story, which can be summarized easily: sad old guy meets needy young woman, relationship happens. Old guy dies. The end.
What makes this play great is how well the handle method 2. Baryshnikov spends 5 minutes onstage getting ready for a date. The Girl spends 5 minutes getting ready. Nothing really happens, but it’s so well done that great theater arises from the artistry of the actors and the imagination of the director.
If you’re going to have the world’s greatest danceur as your star, people expect to see him dance. There is a short dance sequence at the end of the play, but I thought it was more important to realize that every move Baryshnnikov makes is dance–it’s just who/what he is. He has complete control over every tiny muscle in his body, and everything he does is expressed in his every movement.
Clearly, we all loved it. If it hadn’t closed, you’d love it too.