Baryshnikov Meets Chekhov in a Perplexing Multimedia Muddle

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The great Latvian ballet dancer-turned-actor Mikhail Baryshnikov first appeared at Berkeley Repertory Theatre last year in a sold-out short run of director Dmitry Krymov's In Paris, based on a story by Russian writer Ivan Bunin. Now Baryshnikov's back in another multimedia-soaked theater piece based on Russian literature. Man in a Case was adapted from two 1898 Anton Chekhov stories by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar of New York City's Big Dance Theater, who also co-direct. Having premiered at Hartford Stage Company in March of last year, the show comes to Berkeley Rep with most of its original cast intact.

The two short stories this play draws upon, "The Man in a Case" and "About Love" (the titles vary depending on the translation), are part of a trilogy with another yarn called "Gooseberries." The trilogy was written late in Chekhov's life and career; he was only 38, but he died at 44. These stories are unusual among the author's tales in that they're stories that characters tell each other. Two traveling men are staying the night at a friend's house, and these are the stories they tell about themselves and old acquaintances or family members.


Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tymberly Canale and Aaron Mattocks in Man in a Case.

Parson and Lazar's staging preserves this basic framing device, and a great deal of Chekhov's wording is used, at least in an antiquated English translation (probably Constance Garnett's from the 1910s, from the sound of it). But it's all highly stylized so as to bear as little resemblance to the experience of people telling stories to each other as possible. Dressed as hunters in plaid shirts, the travelers sit at a table speaking into microphones as if on a panel discussion. Peter Ksander's ever-changing set (moved around by the performers) is dominated by stacked television sets and many pull-down screens all over the walls and furniture. Every scene is backed by a variety of videos offering different angles of what a character is doing right now, or an embarrassing moment or haunting memory repeated over and over again. Sometimes it'll be a simple slow-motion image of the actors moving a table around, with no discernable connection to what they're talking about. Tei Blow's sound design is laced with ominous echoing music that elevates petty anxieties to the level of a horror movie.

And then, of course, there's the dance element, choreographed by Parson. Sometimes the characters are actually engaging in social dances, to highlight the discomfort of another character who's too uptight to dance. Sometimes two performers will sit at a table and perform a seemingly abstract series of arm movements, or writhe around slowly in melancholy on the floor.

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Tymberly Canale and Mikhail Baryshnikov in Man in a Case.

Baryshnikov has great physical presence as a performer, and some of the scenes where he's making people uncomfortable just with his pained facial expressions are awfully effective. Unfortunately, he's pretty wooden in the speaking parts, for reasons that have little or nothing to do with his thick accent. He overdoes his nebbishy chiding as Belikov, a terminally uptight and propriety-obsessed teacher of Greek who gets pressured into an uncomfortable romance. When he narrates another story, he does it so monotonously that it's hard not to zone out. Standing ovations are so common at opening nights at large theaters that they often seem like the default, especially when there are big stars involved, so it was awfully telling to see this one receive the rare sitting ovation.

Tymberle Canale plays Belikov's love interest Barbara with delightful effervescence, giggling and dancing jubilantly, and she's equally compelling as a married woman whose unconsummated attraction to another man leads her into a sluggish depression. Assistant director Aaron Mattocks has an intense face and physicality as Barbara's quarrelsome brother, and his dancing scenes are terrific, but he too is stronger in the nonverbal scenes than the speaking ones.


Tymberly Canale, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Aaron Mattocks in Man in a Case.

Music director Chris Giarmo is charming in hapless semi-coherence as Ivan, one of the hunters telling stories to each other; he keeps saying "that's exactly my point" whenever someone else says something semi-profound. Lazar uses a more blasé radio voice as his friend Burkin.

The heavy use of video and music is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the adaptation and most of the performances are too thin to hold one's attention even for the show's modest 75-minute running time. But as welcome as the visual distraction may be, it's still a distraction, which conspires with the stilted delivery and patchwork narrative style to make it very difficult to follow what people are telling you or what's going on. If they included the part in which it's explained why Belikov is called "the man in the case," I certainly missed it. I only know the answer to that because I've already read the story. There may be a lot of Chekhov preserved in the spoken text, but there's remarkably little incentive to listen to his words, which ultimately is a disservice to his potent writing.

Man in a Case runs through February 16, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.

All photos by T. Charles Erickson.