Although Mikhail Baryshnikov spends nearly all of his time onstage driving an imaginary car, you could hardly call “Forbidden Christmas or the Doctor and the Patient” a star vehicle. Indeed, Baryshnikov mostly disappears into the role of holy fool in this winsome Russian parable. The closest the world’s most famous dancer comes to cutting a rug is a bit of hip-wiggling physical comedy that calls to mind Chaplin’s Little Tramp in “Modern Times.”
Though co-produced by the Baryshnikov Dance Foundation, “Forbidden Christmas” doesn’t lean on Baryshnikov’s famous magnetism — although his star power likely will be a draw during the production’s six-month Stateside tour.
It is, rather, the brainchild of Georgian artist Rezo Gabriadze, who, in addition to writing and directing, designed the play’s sets and costumes.
Gabriadze is probably best known as an inventive, idiosyncratic puppeteer. Here he uses simple materials and a bit of illusion to conjure some memorable lo-fi mise-en-scene. A storm-wracked sea, for instance, is suggested by a series of gnarled logs that rotate like barbecue spits. Elsewhere, a character’s dreams are played out in a series of watercolors that drift by like silent-film intertitles.
Gabriadze’s minimalist stagecraft matches a story as feather-light as a children’s folk tale. Set in 1952, in the Republic of Georgia, “Forbidden Christmas” is about a young sailor, played by Baryshnikov, who, after being saved from drowning, begins to believe he owns an invisible automobile. He’s mad, obviously, but in a cute way: When he starts his car, using a handle clipped to his lapel, a crinkly childlike grin spreads across Baryshnikov’s face.
This holy innocence stands contrasted to Jon DeVries’ Doctor, who is world-weary after losing his wife.
Most of the play’s action takes place on Christmas Eve, when the sailor drives the doctor through a blizzard to call on a sick girl. “If you complete this journey, you’ll find peace,” a guardian angel tells the doctor at one point. “You’ll find your wife in your dreams, and she’ll forgive you.” Christmas is officially banned by the Soviets; Hallmark, apparently, is not.
Even so, “Forbidden Christmas” isn’t egregiously schmaltzy or ingratiating. The overall tone is melancholic. But there are also flashes of humor, particularly in Gabriadze’s music, a collage of Russian folk tunes and Soviet bombast. At one point, for instance, the melody is taken up by a symphony of car horns and a seagull. The music is so agreeable, in fact, that it might profitably replace Gabriadze’s often clunky dialogue.
“Forbidden Christmas” already feels like a flickering silent movie. One can’t help but think that Gabriadze’s parable would be more memorable, and less cloying, if it were simply seen rather than heard.