Baryshnikov in action:
Mikhail Baryshnikov — the actor — stars as an aging Russian general in “In Paris” at Berkeley Rep.
Loneliness and an almost debilitating melancholy radiate from Mikhail Baryshnikov’s aging Russian general in exile in Dmitry Krymov’s “In Paris” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The elusive, wary hopelessness of Anna Sinyakina’s younger compatriot waitress matches him nicely in the intriguing but frustratingly static international collaboration that opened Wednesday.
Set in a 1930s expat Paris embodied in cleverly manipulated giant sepia-tinted postcard images, Krymov’s “Paris,” adapted from a short story by Ivan Bunin, is a moody, wryly comic blend of engaging visuals, enchanting found-object music and a romance that generates little heat. Or interest. And that unfolds very slowly. But it rewards some concentrated attention beyond its significance as an event.
This is not only the Bay Area’s first look at Baryshnikov the stage actor, as opposed to the celebrated dancer. It’s also our first look at the work
of Krymov, one of Russia’s more influential experimental theater makers. A collaboration between Manhattan’s Baryshnikov Arts Center and Moscow’s Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, “Paris” opened last fall in Finland, made its American debut last week in Santa Monica, and heads for New York’s Lincoln Center in August.
More — or less — than a play, Krymov’s “Paris” is an exercise in stripping theater to its basics. Sinyakina and five strong actors sing composer Dmitry Volkov’s haunting and buoyant chorales, with the chorus providing accompaniment by blowing into bottles and beating on boxes. Cardboard cutout walls or cars revolve to reveal backstage support.
Simple puppetry is used to comic effect. When an actor flies, we see others handling the winch to one side. When Baryshnikov and Sinyakina dress for their characters’ first date, we see that too. The ex-general’s preparations are, frankly, a stage cliche. The waitress’ endless variations on set and costume designer Maria Tregubova’s deceptively simple apron and slip — accompanied by Maria Gulik’s slyly impassioned excerpts from “Carmen” — are high points of the evening.
Most of the performances are in Russian and French, accompanied by a projected English translation that creeps at a steady pace up the stage and back wall. Tei Blow’s video design adds another layer of visual intrigue.
The story, however, remains underdeveloped. Krymov’s adaptation is short on either evoking Paris or telling us much about the characters. Their background as refugees from the Bolshevik Revolution — the general was with the Western-supported White Russian forces — will mean little to those who don’t know much about Russia’s civil war. Their awkward courtship is sketched in the most rudimentary terms.
It’s up to the actors to provide the dramatic engagement. Sinyakina is a delight working with what little she’s given. Baryshnikov holds the stage with seemingly effortless charisma, from before the show begins until its end. His concentrated, slow movements can be riveting. His short dance moments — a quick burst of frustrated flamenco, a graceful toreador routine (choreography by Alexei Ratmansky) — add welcome dramatic punctuation.
But it isn’t enough. Krymov seems so enamored of his inventive stagings — most of which we’ve seen handled more creatively by other directors — that he lingers on effects long enough to make us wonder what purpose they serve. Meanwhile, the story goes begging in the streets of Paris, and a mere 80 minutes of theater seems a lot longer.
Mikhail Baryshnikov in Dmitry Krymov’s “In Paris” at Berkeley Rep.
As Russian refugees, Anna Sinyakina is a delight and Mikhail Baryshnikov exudes charisma.