The woman with the white pompoms sprouting from her head -- why, she's Snow. The guy in the grocery-bag wings is an angel. And the man with the window crank clipped to his shirt, the one who skips cheerfully about the stage proclaiming that he's a car -- well, he's a car. He's also Mikhail Baryshnikov, and what he's doing in this confused and perplexing exercise is anyone's guess.
Yet it's a good thing he's here, because if not for the former ballet star's unmistakable charisma and deliciously expressive way of moving, "Forbidden Christmas, or the Doctor and the Patient" would feel flatter than a junkyard radial.
The one-act play, which opened Wednesday for a sold-out five-day run at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, is the work of Rezo Gabriadze, the Georgian artist who used puppets to great effect in his "Battle of Stalingrad: A Requiem" at the center four years ago. Gabriadze does everything but appear onstage in "Forbidden Christmas": He directed, designed the sets and costumes and put together the sound effects. He also borrowed from Kafka, Chekhov, "The Fantasticks" and the Bible, and seems to have gotten so tangled up with the various strands and strains he was working with that clarity and any sense of story get lost.
The plot springs from what Gabriadze says was his own experience growing up in the town of Kutaisi, where one of his neighbors believed he was not a Soviet villager but a motorcar. So it is with Baryshnikov's character, Chito. When first we meet him, he is a kind of noble Boy Scout making his way in a cold, cruel world. Specifically, it's a cold, cruel corner of the Republic of Georgia in the 1950s, a place where not even Christmas is welcome, religion being the opiate of the masses and all.
Chito, a sailor, returns home to find that his fiancee, Tsisana (played with fresh-faced earnestness by Pilar Witherspoon), has left him for a man with a fancy sedan. In his despair, Chito throws himself into the sea, but that angel with the paper wings (a drily witty Gregory Mitchell) fishes him out. [In last night's performance, Mitchell was rushed to the hospital after collapsing on stage. See story in Metro, Page B2. ]
Poor damaged Chito, however, now believes he is a car. Crank up the handle on his chest, and he shudders and jolts into gear. Because he is Baryshnikov, he shudders and jolts most gorgeously. Enjoy these bits.
One wintry night -- Christmas Eve, in fact, which under the rule of the Communists must be celebrated in secret -- Chito rustles up the local Doctor (a blustery Jon DeVries) to beg him to help save a sick little girl. Little does the good doc know that he's not just embarking on a house call but on a quest for his own redemption. Like Chito, he has suffered in love, too. He betrayed his wife, who subsequently died, bequeathing him a heartload of guilt.
This male-bonding road trip becomes a search not just for reconciliation and peace but also for Jesus, whose story becomes entwined with Chito's and the Doctor's in only the most tangential way. There's a holy chanting in the background as innocent, godless Chito asks the Doctor, "Why were people so afraid of Him?"
"Because He told the truth," intones the Doctor -- because Gabriadze isn't quite sure at this point whether we're really getting that this a morality tale.
A few basic tenets of Christianity are tossed in and duly mulled over by the pair before being dropped entirely in favor of a couple of surprise, hard-to-swallow twists. Is Chito truly deluded? Or just deliriously happy? Is it better to be content and crazy, or clear-eyed and bitter?
The play's chief problem is that as winsome as Baryshnikov is, he comes off more as precious than as someone who touches the heart, and this ends up derailing Gabriadze's point. Yes, this is a stylized storybook fable, a quirky faux-naif movement-theater amalgam, but one still expects some kind of emotional impact. There is very little in this play that feels like true human experience.
There is an initial charm to the play's deliberately low-tech, school-play set design. A brief written introduction is yanked across the stage on a clothesline. A painted sheet stands in for the car that carries Tsisana away from Chito. A cast member holds up a yellow cardboard moon, followed by the sun, to signal the days that Chito spends mourning for his lost fiancee. But do we really need the moon to ever-so-slowly arc around for the second time? It is at about this point that, for all its cut-and-paste cuteness, "Forbidden Christmas" begins to feel overdone.
Just about the only moments that don't feel forced are those in which Baryshnikov is not acting but moving. After the lengthy, wordless prologue, in which Baryshnikov spends a lot of time frozen in place with a look of anguish, he comes to life as a car with a welcome sense of humor. He skims the stage with a wonderful hitch step, careens smoothly around the corners, skids lightly to a stop. The man who was the Cadillac of ballet dancers still handles like the sports car of your dreams. If only he would choose his material with the same unerring instincts.
Forbidden Christmas, or The Doctor and the Patient, written and directed by Rezo Gabriadze. Scenic, sound collage and costume design by Gabriadze; lighting, Jennifer Tipton; choreography, Luis Perez. With Yvonne Woods. Approximately 1 hour 40 minutes. Sold-out performances through Sunday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.