A Master Class in Stagecraft and Movement

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

As you walk into the US premiere of In Paris at the Broad Stage, you discover Mikhail Baryshnikov standing on stage ...in the dark. Okay, it's not totally dark, he's lit by the half-light of the audience. But he's there sort of milling about and looking at the audience…waiting. It almost looks clumsy - as if someone forgot to light him. This isn't what you expected.

And that's exactly the point. So begins the game of high-art cat and mouse of In Paris.

Technically, it's a clever opening. It avoids that grand entrance of the ballet star at the top of the play. Baryshnikov still gets his applause but it barely stops the show. You can almost hear director Dmitry Krymov saying, "You'll get what you came for but on my terms not yours."

In Paris is adapted from a 1940 short story by Russian Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin. It's a love story between an aging Russian general and a young Russian waitress who both find themselves exiled and alone 'in Paris.' But the play isn't a tale of romance quite as much as a chronicle of the painful and awkward moments that precede love.

The heart of the show is a pair of silent scenes where we watch the general and the waitress answer that most torturous of questions - 'what to wear on the first date?' For the general, played by Baryshnikov, it's a study in deliberate movement. He shaves; he dresses: simple, disciplined.

For the waitress, played with straightforward beauty by Anna Sinyakina, 'which dress?' is a tortured ballet of decisions. With nothing more than the costume she's already wearing, we see her go through a litany of styles and possibilities. Nothing's quite right, she looks a mess, the clock is ticking and then, in a moment of pure stage magic, she's instantly in the perfect dress.

Stagecraft is something we rarely talk about - even the word sounds a bit antiquated. But this simple moment of transforming from a disheveled mess to elegant evening gown in front of our eyes is a perfect example of technique. And it's only one of many. There are dogs that erupt from men's chests, an orchestra created by the human voice and empty bottles, and projected subtitles that take on their own topography and life. Director Krymov reminds us that stagecraft can be an art in and of itself.

And then there's Baryshnikov: the reason most of the audience came. Yes, he dances. In the final scene he does a solo. It's beautiful ... but for me not nearly as revelatory as his movement in the rest of the piece. There's an economy, a grace, a clarity to Baryshnikov's movement as an actor that makes the rest of the play a master class in movement for the stage.

In Paris isn't an epic, sentimental romance. It's a simple story beautifully staged by an ensemble with remarkable technique. And while it might not move you to tears - it will stick with you like the memory of a long lost love.

In Paris plays this weekend only at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission and NO LATE SEATING.

Banner image: Actress Anna Sinyakina and actor/dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov perform in the US premiere of In Paris at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, California. Photo by Angela Weiss/WireImage