Director: Alvis Hermanis

Actor: Mikhail Baryshnikov

Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto

January 24-28 2018

Reviewed by Ted Fox

Brodsky/Baryshnikov is a tribute to Baryshnikov's friend, Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who died in 1996. Brodsky was exiled and emigrated to the United States in 1972. Baryshnikov defected to the West where he met Brodsky.

The set design by Kristine Jurjane consists of an art nouveau grayish stone conservatory. Two cherubs stand on guard to the right and left of the entrance. The inside is gutted. There is a bucket of paint, and bare light bulbs with exposed wiring suspended from the ceiling. There are other indications of a restoration in progress. A sense of the loss of the vanishing old world being replaced by the new, or a metaphor for the ruin of his body wracked by age.

Baryshnikov reads or recites Brodsky's poetry while sitting on one of two benches located on the narrow area in front of the conservatory. Nearby, on another bench, there is an anachronistic reel-to-reel recorder that appears to turn on and off on its own, playing some poems that Brodsky had recorded.

Baryshnikov reacts to these recorded recitations with compelling imagistic movements. These take place in the conservatory. We look through the paneled glass windows to watch. Our view is blocked by the panels, making his movements segmented and somewhat ghostly.

He spins with arms and hands flowing outward and then folding inwards: "the emptiness around me like a ball." He becomes a butterfly, his crossed hands turning his fingers into fluttering wings. A stallion rearing upwards, his hooves loudly hitting the floor. In the entrance he sits on a chair, pants rolled up with feet, legs and torso exposed. Body splayed backwards in grotesque tormented poses, reflecting the last gasps of life. Reminded me of Christ lying at the foot of the cross or perhaps a Francis Bacon painting.

All this takes place in varying degrees of bright light. A fuse box emits crackling sparks, causing the bulbs to go on and off, suggesting the struggle to maintain life on the brink of death.

Brodsky's poems are recited in Russian. The surtitles emerge and move upwards as if embedded in the wall above and released. The translations, by Jamey Gambrell, are vividly imagistic and rife with very black humour. Brodsky's reading has a forceful ritualistic cadence to it that is hypnotic to listen to.

Baryshnikov starts reading in a barely heard whisper. Gradually words become heard, as if initially he is reading to himself. As he progresses, his body becomes agitated. He moves back and forth.

His poetry speaks of the passage of time, the wasting away of the body to the point where identity is erased bit by bit. Death is depicted as a black stallion looking for a rider.There are vivid descriptions of this process and resultant physical decomposition. All depicted with black humour.

There is a very low choir heard on and off throughout, sounding like it is leaking in through a portal in time. It is composed by Jim Wilson and is entitled God's Chorus of Crickets. It adds a spirituality to this production. I was amazed to find that the piece was composed using the digitally modified sounds of real live crickets, and was designed by the composer to mirror the length of the average lifespan of a human being.

This is a challenging and deeply personal production in which the vocalization of Brodsky's poetry, the evocative movement and striking visuals result in a very moving experience.

Note: If interested click on link below to hear the cricket chorus. ..