‘Man in a Case’
Through Dec. 22
Shakespeare Theatre Company
450 7th Street, NW
Don’t go to “Man in the Case” expecting to see Baryshnikov leaping across the Lansburgh stage wearing tights and bathed in a spotlight. That’s not happening. What you will see is a superb production with the legendary Russian ballet superstar acting in an ensemble, marvelously interpreting two lovelorn Chekhov characters, and — despite his protestations in recent interviews — even dancing a little.
Adapted and staged by Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson and of the New York-based Big Dance Theater (Parson also choreographs), “Man in a Case” is an experimental retelling of two anti-love stories by Russian dramatist and short story writer Anton Chekhov. Baryshnikov plays each story’s very different protagonists.
After a long day outdoors, two hunters (Jess Barbagallo, Chris Giarmo) are exchanging tales. The first is about Belikov (Baryshnikov), a Greek teacher whose solitary, regimented life is briefly upended when he falls in love with Barbara (Tymberly Canale), a giddy Ukrainian extrovert who loves to sing and dance. The relationship’s undoing is Barbara’s avid bicycling. Uptight Belikov can’t abide such unorthodox behavior. In the second, shorter piece, Baryshnikov plays an educated young farmer who falls in love with his only friend’s young wife (again the excellent Canale). Both romances end badly.
Using video, imagery, sound and movement, the adaptors/directors employ an experimental but easily followed narrative. As the audience is still being seated, some actors and a video and sound designer (Keith Skretch and Tei Blow, respectively) gather around a refectory table onstage.
With house lights still up, Baryshnikov enters from a side door in the orchestra section and climbs on to the stage almost unnoticed. Then the action begins in earnest. As the classics teacher, clad in a heavy black coat, Baryshnikov is fastidious and precise. In the latter wistful memory piece, Baryshnikov serves as narrator. His well-modulated voice sounds Russian learned via a British tutor. His lovesick farmer’s movements are slower, almost languorous. The great dancer is an excellent actor.
In 1974, Baryshnikov (now 65) defected from Russia where he was a rising star at the Kirov Ballet. At the New York City Ballet he shot to stardom as a world famous dancer. He also choreographed and acted in some films. Younger audiences might only know him as Carrie Bradshaw’s dispassionate artist boyfriend from “Sex and the City.” Today, he remains all grace and agility. (As Belikov he turns a few backward somersaults down a steep flight of stairs, and as the farmer, he is partner in a beautiful sort of modern pas de deux.)
The production is tight — an absolute pleasure to watch from beginning to end. If anything, it’s too short at 75 minute. But better to be left wanting more than less. With its whimsical video projections and clever touches, the production still captures the wit, sadness and honest description of the human experience found in Chekhov’s short stories. It’s also surprise-filled, delightful and full of feeling. A wicker love seat changes into a frenzied, carnival ride. Belakov’s bed morphs into a virtual curtained isolation tank. Peter Ksander’s set design and Oana Botez’s costumes are contemporary and period, further cementing Chekhov’s timelessness and undeniably universal appeal.
American novelist Eudora Welty once said, “Reading Chekhov was just like the angels singing to me.” Some wildly divine and singular praise, indeed; but seeing Baryshnikov do Chekhov in Big Dance’s production is exhilarating in its own right. It’s something not be missed.