Two trains of thought run side by side as you watch Marcel Marceau at Ford's Theatre. The first is that Marceau, who opened Wednesday night, is a splendid performer, a man of liquid motion and seemingly infinite expression, a physical poet. The second is that pantomime, with its inevitable emphasis on technique as much as on character or story, and with its tendency toward the saccharine, has palpable limits.

Marceau, 76, has long been regarded as the world's greatest mime--can anyone name another?--and his skills remain in glorious condition. If you remember him from any of his numerous television appearances in the 1970s, or from films like Mel Brooks's "Silent Movie" (in which the joke was that the always-silent Marceau spoke the only word in the whole picture), then you know what to expect. In whiteface and a body-hugging clown suit, he is an artist of movement, creating characters and situations and occasionally even conjuring a surge of raw feeling as he glides around an empty stage. Give him nothing more than a pool of light in which to be seen, and Marceau will give you a show.

The show at Ford's, simply and accurately called "Marcel Marceau," is divided into two parts: pantomimes of style before the intermission, and pantomimes of his famous character Bip afterward. (The lineup will vary during the run; Marceau has two separate shows that follow this general scheme.) In Wednesday night's pantomimes--introduced with title cards held stylishly by Marceau's assistants, Gyongyi Biro and Stephan Le Forestier--he eased the audience into his art. Marceau first appeared as a painter, cranking up his invisible easel and fiddling with his palette until, for fun, it became a violin.

A tour of a public garden allows Marceau to play a variety of characters. There's a chatterbox whose lips flutter as fast as a hummingbird's wings. There's a mother pushing her stroller, cooing at her baby. There's a man walking his dog--a very big dog, evidently, from the way it jerks the man to and fro. You can't help but marvel at Marceau's skill; he makes you see the dog, even though all he's doing is pretending to hold a leash. You can almost smell the park.

During a courtroom drama, Marceau plays all the parts: a curious judge, a haughty prosecutor, a humble defense attorney, a defeated, manacled defendant, and the rigid bailiff who ushers them all in. Through the grim prosecutor's statements, Marceau even shows us the crime, a brutal stabbing and robbery. It's a tour de force--though here, as with the garden sequence, you're aware that most of what you're admiring is the technique. Marceau's ability to tell a story nonverbally is almost always much more interesting than the story itself.

That's not to say that there isn't a poignancy to something like "Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death," in which Marceau (in a scant two minutes) seamlessly transforms himself from a striding, sunny boy to a shrunken, withered figure. A sense of loss runs through a number of the selections, a feeling that's reinforced by the recurring imagery of birds, suggested by Marceau's crossing his hands at the wrist and flapping elegantly.

But a meandering quality creeps into a number of the scenarios. Few of the scenes have the perfect shapeliness of the bit about Bip as a street musician (the hapless character's sweet violin gets drowned out by a raucous marching band, for which Bip is ultimately compelled to play the cymbals). It's interesting that the most powerful scene in Wednesday night's show was not a literal story at all but a short abstract piece called "The Hands," in which Marceau's left and right hands engaged in an undefinable dramatic conflict that led, after a struggle, to a resolution.

Even though the show is not relentlessly spellbinding, Marceau is so effortless and assured that you never lose sight of the fact that you are watching one of the legendary performers of the 20th century, someone as polished in his skills and persona as Charlie Chaplin (Marceau modeled Bip, in part, on Chaplin's Little Tramp). The similarities between Marceau and Chaplin provoke both awe and wistfulness. Late in Chaplin's career, when he was making sentimental stuff like "Limelight," it was clear that the movies, with all their sound and color, had passed him by.

Likewise, Marceau seems to be single-handedly hanging on to a dying art form. Yes, there are theater companies in Europe and even here in Washington dedicated to communication through movement. But is it possible to imagine another white-faced, timeless mime headlining at Ford's, or anywhere else, in the foreseeable future?

And yet Marceau, supple and evocative as ever, forges on, untouched by irony or postmodernism, a true believer in classic mimodrama's ability to capture an audience's imagination. Playing Bip, Marceau staggers around a rolling ship deck, his legs pumping up and down so unevenly you'd swear the stage was pitching, his stomach seeming to rise into his mouth with the rough seas. At times like this, when he hits his comic stride and paints vivid, whimsical pictures in your mind, the effect of watching Marceau is indeed sublime. He can make you believe in mime almost as much as he does.

Marcel Marceau, at Ford's Theatre through Feb. 13. Call 703-218-6500 or 800-955-5566.