It would be easy for Mikhail Baryshnikov to rest on his laurels. It would also be easy to recommend that you see him in Man in a Case, at Shakespeare Theatre Company as part of their Presentation Series, simply for the novelty of seeing one of the greatest performers of our time on stage. Doing anything. What a pleasure then, that this is not an easy piece. Instead, you have the privilege of witnessing charisma at the service of experimental theater. It’s truly extraordinary.
Man in a Case is adapted and directed by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar of Big Dance Theater, who use their innovative approach on two short stories by Anton Chekhov: “Man in a Case” and “About Love.” Parson also choreographs the production (she’s worked with David Byrne on several projects, and with St. Vincent on her upcoming tour). Though it runs just under ninety minutes, the piece has an elegiac pace which allows the seamless combination of video, sound, dance, and narration to unfold with a hypnotic beauty.
There’s a haunting immediacy to the production from its first moments, as hunters begin swapping stories in a manner evoking the folksy banter of a late night radio show. The onstage presence of sound designer Tei Blow and associate video designer Keith Skretch seems entirely natural as they execute cues from their laptops right alongside the actors. It’s that dichotomy between the natural and the artificial that gives Man in a Case an eccentric edge, which only expands as projections reminiscent of surveillance cameras appear on surfaces both expected and unexpected. It has the quality of immersive theater – even though we are watching from our stationary seats in the Lansburgh, we feel included. There’s a hint of voyeurism which expands and continues to the end.
Man in a Case begins with the story of professor Belikov (Baryshnikov), who lives a heartbreakingly restrictive and proper existence almost devoid of air to breathe. He is imprisoned in rigidity, a fact Baryshnikov makes clear with economical physical precision. A dreaded dinner guest, he’s perceived as a bore by the other townspeople and only comes momentarily to life when the possibility of love with the delightfully brash Barbara (Tymberly Canale) is presented. Ultimately, he’s undone by his inability to escape the narrow confines of the rules and regulations he’s encased himself in. We know the precise moment that love is doomed, because we’re complicit – when a shower of terrible (and terribly funny) caricatures falls over the audience, Belikov’s shame is made painfully real.
It’s a perfect theatrical moment, one of many that illuminate the production. When Belikov confronts Barbara’s menacing brother Kovalenko (Aaron Mattocks) in a deceptively simple scene on a staircase, the two actors build tension to an almost unbearable breaking point, as the music rises and the projection brings us in close. That tension inherent in “Man in a Case” is shaken off by Baryshnikov in a gentle dance before beginning “About Love,” and here Parson is allowing us to hope that the next story will end happily.
It doesn’t. It is Chekhov, after all.
“About Love” is almost a tone poem on the exquisite pain of impossible desire, and it features a daring dance duet performed flattened to the ground by Baryshnikov and Canale, as their moves are transformed by a birds-eye projection view the audience sees dead on. It’s a stunning moment, accompanied by Chris Giarmo’s live singing in plaintive falsetto and Jess Barbagallo’s melancholic narration. Giarmo’s music direction, the video direction of Jeff Larson and Keith Skretch, and the sound design of Tei Blow, combine to create an environment throughout that is truly special. As the doomed couple, Baryshnikov and Canale again delineate their emotion through strict economy of gesture, capturing the essence of illicit chemistry, and the ensemble reacts with perfect integration. Shorter than the first segment, “About Love” still packs a powerful erotic charge, and its final line, delivered with wistful sincerity by Barbagallo, left me wanting more.
Baryshnikov Productions’ Man in a Case performs as part of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Presentation Series, at the Lansburgh Theatre through December 22, 2013, located at 450 7th Street NW, Washington DC 20004. Tickets $45-105. Closest Metro stop: Archives-Navy Mem’l-Penn Quarter (Yellow/Green lines) or Gallery Pl-Chinatown (Red/Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-547-1122.