IT'S A HAPLESS BUDDY story with a heart, a moral and sociopolitical underpinnings. But that's not what makes "Forbidden Christmas, or the Doctor and the Patient" one of the theatrical events of the season. This new play with movement is directed by renowned puppeteer, playwright and designer Rezo Gabriadze, the masterful genius behind the Kennedy Center's 2000 presentation of "The Battle of Stalingrad," which raised that wartime story to operatic heights through eclectic puppetry and props.

But it's likely that another factor in the equation will draw audiences to "Forbidden Christmas" who might otherwise overlook this fantastically imagistic work.

The wild card? Mikhail Baryshnikov. The legendary ballet-dancer-turned-modern-dancer-turned-actor (most recently as the beguiling Aleksandr Petrovsky to Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie on HBO's "Sex and the City") returns to the Kennedy Center, this time in the Terrace Theater through Sunday. In "Forbidden Christmas," Baryshnikov moves with dashing elegance, but it's not exactly expected fare for a onetime ballet dancer. Gabriadze has cast Baryshnikov as Chito, a man who believes he's a car. Yes, a car, with four wheels, a chassis and a starter that reportedly shimmies and rumbles in spasms nearly as virtuosic as the onetime soaring leaps and unstoppable pirouettes of the dancer.

Ask Luis Perez, choreographer for "Forbidden Christmas," about working with Baryshnikov, and he responds with nothing but accolades. "You're talking about one of the most inventive, creative minds I've ever worked with," Perez said recently from his home in New York. "Misha is unbelievable. He's so generous and so easy to work with, I just can't begin to tell you. He's an amazing, amazing performer. His mind is just nonstop. He's just a force of nature." Little wonder last year readers of Dance Magazine voted this superstar "Best Dancer" -- of all time.

Perez, himself a former principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, segued to Broadway as a performer and choreographer; his credits include a 2002-03 revival of "Man of La Mancha," "The Wild Party" and, for Radio City Music Hall, "Pokemon Live!" Really. Although Perez reports that he and Baryshnikov had crossed paths frequently in the insular New York dance world, the two never formally worked together until Baryshnikov invited Gabriadze to pen this allegorical tale -- based on the director's experiences in Stalinist Georgia -- for the stage.

The rehearsals worked like a mini-United Nations. Gabriadze doesn't speak English; Baryshnikov and the other performers don't speak Ukrainian. "I would ask Rezo, 'What do you want to see?' " Perez says. "Then he would draw for me. I would put the sketch up and get us in and out of that picture as smoothly and efficiently as possible."

The plot follows Chito, a young sailor, as he sets out on a quest with a doctor to save a young girl who has ingested poison. The story is a fantasia that features an unusual array of characters, including an angel (Perez until a recent injury put him on the sidelines). That it takes place on Christmas in Stalin-era Soviet Union, where all religion was outlawed, compounds the themes of truth and tradition in a society where the surreal and the real intermingle.

Perez thrived in Gabriadze's collaborative artistic laboratory, where dancers, actors and scenic visual artists worked closely. "It's really almost an art installation," Perez explains, "the sets you might call found lost-object art. They were built in Soviet Georgia from pieces of stuff that was found. It's not a farce but it's a fantastic quixotic tale . . . very much stylized movement, not dance per se."

Then he returns once more to Baryshnikov's performance: "When Misha becomes a car, it's one of the most amazing transformations you'll ever see. It's not choreography in the classical sense of choreography. It's storytelling through highly stylized movement."

FORBIDDEN CHRISTMAS, OR THE DOCTOR AND THE PATIENT -- Through Sunday at the Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center. 202-467-4600.

He's back: Mikhail Baryshnikov, front (with Luis Perez, left, and Jon DeVries), stars in "Forbidden Christmas, or the Doctor and the Patient" at the Kennedy Center. Baryshnikov plays a sailor who believes he's a car.