Watching Mikhail Baryshnikov in Man in a Case is everything that so much American Chekhov in adaptation is not; there’s nothing languid about this performance, but rather we watch his character with fascination, an emotional minimalist encasing the antics of a pent-up animal – passionate, furious, terrified, and tortured all at once. One arm shoots out across the table as if of its own volition. His other arm pounces and drags it back. He cuts the air into imaginary bricks, repeatedly stacking them as if “squirreling” them to keep order in his life. He eyes a voluptuous woman riding gaily by him, “exposed” on a bicycle, and his body coils in striking distance as if to spit venom in condemnation across the space.
Michael Kahn, Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, chose this production as the second in his international STC Presentation Series. The first, the stunningly erotic and emotionally searing Mies Julie from South Africa, was outstanding theatre, and Man in a Case, though tamer, is in the same league.
For this show, Baryshnikov joins with prominent members of the New York-based Big Dance Theater. Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar have adapted and directed the work, which includes live music, dance and video, and both archived and in-real time surveillance-style footage.
The stage is filled with small screens, some built into the set and some makeshift, rolled up-and-down and put away. Video designer Jeff Larson has used the medium artfully, especially high “tipping” surveillance cameras to get curious angles and up-close shots of Baryshnikov’s movements. A ubiquitous element and often distracting in current performance work, in this “case”, the media is integrated well, and the television frames underscore the theme of “boxing-in” the character.
At its heart, however, the work is about story telling, and this not only honors Anton Chekhov, master of the short story, but the shared narrative keeps the work coherent, straightforward, and enjoyable. For this production, the creative team chose two Chekhov short stories, “Man in a Case” paired with “About Love.” The first is the more fleshed-out piece. Both deal with a central, quintessential Chekhovian character in the same mold: a man who refuses to act in a way compatible with his own feelings, but who lives trapped inside both societal structures and those of his own making. As always with Chekhov, the characters in the stories are not deprecated or held up to ridicule but recorded with detailed observations by an amused but kindly heart.
Parson has also fleshed out two contemporary characters, the hunters, who serve as narrators and knit the two works into one. Jess Barbagallo as Burkin and Chris Giarmo as Ivan, with their plaid shirts and big leather boots, look and sound as if they might be card-carrying NRA members. Their patter includes turkey calls, weapon types, and ammo size, and it returns in the show like a musical-motif. Barbagallo and Giarmo are delightfully comical without ever pushing for effect.
Burkin and Ivan exchange gossip and stories about their neighbors. Burkin, a schoolteacher, launches into a tale about his colleague, the Greek teacher Belikov. Suddenly Baryshnikov appears over their shoulders to animate Belikov, with round dark spectacles, a flat hat, and a long dark coat.
This perfectly contained man with his orderly existence gets thrown a huge challenge when a new history teacher arrives with his lively, loudly-laughing, sister, Barbara. Tymberly Canale is a strong-bodied woman, who towers over Baryshnikov. Her emotional range is both expansive and quixotic, and their odd relationship, developing into the most unlikely of courtships, is both touching and highly entertaining.
The performance choreography is where the work most comes alive. In this company’s physical lexicon, there seems no room for sheer technical virtuosity, but each movement must express something about character or dramatic intent. Canale’s movements, at times trying to match and “speak” Belikov’s physical language, at other times bursting into social dance in reaction to the dullness of the place made lifeless by the philistine Belikov, are mesmerizing. Aaron Mattocks plays the new history teacher Kovalenko, and executes simple folk dance steps with such clean elegance that when he begins to spin slowly with his long Russian-styled, tight-waisted coat with its fiery red appliqued designs, his sheer beauty makes me want to put out a call for more men in skirts.
Of course, the audience sits in anticipation waiting for Baryshnikov, who so dominated the dance stage in the second half of the twentieth century, to break out and dazzle us with firework movements. He dodges the issue by taking his first few steps behind a table so that half his body is hidden. Later in the show, he says something to the effect, “they are all waiting for it” (one of the self-referential moments that clearly was meant to be enjoyed by the audience but to my mind was unnecessary and jarring) as he begins to move.
Even though he seems to want to bury himself in the ensemble we can never quite forget this is, after all, Baryshnikov. In all his appropriately confined, character-driven movements, he proves he has never lost his command of the stage. In the climactic scene, Kovalenko knocks Belikov backwards from the top of a proscenium-high staircase, and suddenly we watch this athletic dancer fall and tumble in slow motion, all in strobe effect, for what seems like the height and length of the stage. It is a shocking and beautiful image.
Many of the songs are derived from Ukrainian folk music, led by Giarmo who also serves the work as Music Director. This performer is fearless; he experiments with distorting sound for effect and also plays with culturally-specific vocal styles. He creates a beautiful aural tapestry throughout, and achieves rich harmonic blends with the performers.
The set by Peter Ksander reflects the split dichotomy of this company’s style. On stage right is a table with microphones that reminded me of the Wooster Group and other New York experimental ensembles from the early 80’s. In this area, we are always aware of actors sitting and using the microphones, like an old radio stage where one watches how the effects are created. However, the production never devolves into deconstructed artiness that have marred some performance experiments.
On stage left there is a tiny jewel-box replica of Belikov’s room so that we always know where we are and are invited into the heart of the material. Here, the character locks his door with four bolts, sits and reads surrounded by heavy gilded books from antiquity, and pulls down his narrow bed to lie down to sleep fully dressed.
Man in a Case
Closes December 22, 2013
Shakespeare Theatre Company
at Lansburgh Theatre
450 7th Street NW
1 hour, 15 minutes no intermission
Tickets: $45 – $105
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Indeed, Baryshnikov and Big Dance Theater have surrounded themselves with a whole team of world-class designers. Oana Botez has created beautiful costumes with a light touch of period-style. Jennifer Tipton’s sensitive lighting shows this multi-award winning designer remains at the top of her game. I’ve mentioned Larson’s video but one magical image that stays with me is the black-and-white footage of little Russian schoolchildren, all dressed in white, who are climbing a central staircase, and the way it is edited, they climb and climb and climb.
Tei Blow’s sound design used an array of loops of spoken and percussive sounds, including an amplified heart beat that reminded me of Baryshnikov’s one-man show where he used his heart beat amplified as soundtrack to change tempi, unveiling the aging dancer’s body and humanity.
Baryshnikov has always fearlessly experimented, reaching across boundaries of dance styles and theatre. I was there for his opening night Broadway debut in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Although certain reviewers were highly critical of the production, I was deeply moved by his performance and many aspects of the small ensemble work. Baryshnikov has come to Man in a Case with a stronger command of the language and a deep understanding of Chekhov. I hope he continues his work as a man-of-theatre.
Man in a Case . based on Two Stories by Anton Chekhov . Adapted and Directed by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar . Choreographed by Annie-B Parson . Produced by Baryshnikov Productions and Big Dance Theatre . Presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
Malcolm Lewis Barnes . Washington Times
Jenn Larsen . WeLoveDC
Maggie Lawrence . StarExponent
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Charlene Gianetti . WomanAroundTown
Elizabeth Bruce . MDTheatreGuide
David Siegel . ShowBizRadio
John Stoltenberg . DCMetroTheaterArts