Even when he isn’t dancing, Mikhail Baryshnikov is a graceful stage presence. As the leading man of “In Paris,” the acclaimed dancer — one of the ballet world’s most celebrated stars — is currently making his Bay Area debut as an actor at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. But even his command of movement doesn’t carry this slight, and often static, theater piece.
Adapted from a short story by Nobel laureate Ivan Bunin and directed by Dmitry Krymov, the show tells the story of Nikolai (Baryshnikov), a former general in the Russian army now reduced to writing the histories of its battles.
Exiled to Paris, he’s aging and lonely — until he meets Olga (Anna Sinyakina), a waitress in a small Russian neighborhood cafe. She’s wary, and much younger, but it’s love at first sight.
Krymov’s staging unfolds on a turntable set of picture postcards and monochromatic images (by Maria Tregubova, who also designed the 1930s costumes). The story is told in short scenes — Nikolai’s first meal at the cafe, a couple of brief conversations between the couple, a night at the cinema. A ride through town in a cardboard car generates a few whimsical moments.
As Nikolai narrates in Russian and French (with English supertitles), Krymov also relies on video projections (by Tei Blow), text, music and movement. A five-person ensemble supplies supporting roles and musical interludes (composed by Dmitry Volkov), making sound on bottles and drums, and humming wordless tunes. A singer contributes a couple of penetrating arias by Bizet and Mozart.
Baryshnikov creates the world-weary general in baleful glances and economical movement; he can suggest emotion with the smallest gesture, and make you laugh just by sitting in a chair. Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky gives him a couple of short dance sequences. Sinyakina, an agile performer, is Baryshnikov’s equal here — her preparation for their first date, as she stands before an invisible mirror trying on a simple black dress and white apron, is one of the show’s most captivating scenes.
What the performers can’t do is evoke a clear sense of the characters’ inner lives — who they really are, or why they matter. There’s little heat in this bittersweet romance, and not enough depth to draw the audience in. “In Paris” conjures a beguiling atmosphere. But the story it tells is so thin, even Baryshnikov can’t make it feel substantial.
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes May 13
Tickets: $22.50 to $125
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org