Lincoln Center Festival 2012: In Paris Starring Mikhail Baryshnikov Reflects Agony of Russian Exile

This year’s Lincoln Center Festival was brought to a close by a staged interpretation of In Paris. The work originally authored by Ivan Bunin, a member of a prominent Russian noble family, was adapted to a staged production by Dmitriy Krymov, a son of a prominent Soviet-era stage director. The work reflects the agony of exile filled with suffering, loneliness, and strange shades of hope and love brought to life on the stage by the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov.

The story revolves around the life of a Russian General who fought in World War I on the side of the allies and during the Russian Civil War, on the side supporting the czar and in opposition to the Communists. Just like all those supporting the previous regime, the general is forced to flee to Turkey and onto Paris, via Istanbul. Those who made it to Paris lived in abject poverty, with only a handful finding ways of making a living. The General is one of the lucky few who makes a living writing and consulting the locals on Russia and its military history. One evening, he arrives at a Russian restaurant and is instantly taken by the young waitress, played by Anna Sinyakina. The General is a lonely man of great distinction, injured by his wife's leaving him in Istanbul for a younger and richer Greek boy. Now, he falls for yet another young lady. Following their date, romance, and exchange of financial benefits, he dies on the Parisian Metro – but as a happier man than he was before meeting his new love.

Baryshnikov carries the main role with class and dignity that is needed for a role of such gravity and his constant stage presence is major challenge, as he needs to convey the feeling of loneliness, despair, and yet one of slight optimism – not to mention of a new love. Through various scenes he communicates the fast moving set of emotions associated with every set, culminating in a dance set to an excerpt from Bizet’s Carmen. Sinyakina is incredible in portraying a young girl who is street smart, at times simple, but complex. She is both charming and alive, representing someone who can relate to the pain of immigration that she shares with the General, but she is young and the world is full of possibilities.

The play was sold out for the last day of performances in New York and was well-received in Europe and on the West Coast for two reasons: All those who were forced or fought to come to the United States from the former Soviet bloc can relate to the emotional weight of leaving and trying to reinvent themselves to the mold and need of the new land, and the possibility of seeing Mikhail Baryshnikov. 

For me, attending the play was a trip back in time to the old homeland. The minimalist production carried the air of the theatres I attended in Moscow when growing up and actors who knew exactly – not just related to the role – what the protagonists were thinking, feeling, and living. Baryshnikov knows that pain like no one else and he was able to convey it to all those who worked so hard to forget it and introduced it to those who did not know of it. Indeed this play brings to the surface the very humanity of our common experience on this small planet and serves to the best and truest purpose of art.