Lansburgh Theater, Washington, DC; December 5, 2013
I was one of many teenage girls who idolized Mikhail Baryshnikov. I can still recall the moment when I first saw him up close. In 1985, he and I were both at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center. My mouth hung agape when he happened to walk through the space where my dance company was doing warm-ups. I remember being surprised by his short stature. Fast forward almost 30 years, and I was again in his presence, again in the Washington, DC area. This time, I was seated in the audience, and he was in a performance adapted from two Anton Chekhov short stories (“The Man in a Case” and “About Love”). I was struck again by Baryshnikov’s lack of height. I also somehow couldn’t help but be shocked that he no longer looks young, even though he’s now in his mid-60s. Baryshnikov is such a revered figure, I guess it’s natural to imagine him being taller and younger than he is!
Anyway, it was a huge treat to see Baryshnikov up close once more, and a huge treat as well to enjoy an adaptation of Chekhov short stories. I’ve seen a number of Chekhov productions in the last few years, and I’ve liked them all. “Man in a Case,” though, would not rank at the top of my list. The performance, adapted and directed by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar of New York’s Big Dance Theater, excelled at inventiveness, but, for me, it fell short in capturing the depth and complexity of the two Chekhov stories about yearning, loneliness, and love. Yet, “Man in a Case” offered plenty to appreciate. The blending of video, music, and dance made “Man in a Case” worth seeing.
“Man in a Case” began with a set of men (Jess Barbagallo and Chris Giarmo) talking about hunting. One hunter, Burkin (Barbagallo), reminisced about a teacher of Greek he had known. The Greek teacher, Belikov (Baryshnikov), we learned, was an intimidating, straight-laced, rule-obsessed, socially inept, unmarried man who constantly worried about unspecified troubles that could develop. Then Barbara (Tymberly Canale), the single sister of a new teacher (Aaron Mattocks), arrived in town, took an interest in Belikov, and shook up his world. In a dress covered with a big hot pink floral print, Barbara brightened the atmosphere considerably, and her laughter was especially engaging and haunting. When a disco ball descended at a party for faculty members, we got the message that Barbara was all about fun. Her liveliness, however, seemed a poor match for Belikov’s serious demeanor, and one could sense that their romance was doomed.
I had perused a couple reviews of “Man in a Case” prior to its opening in DC (it premiered in Hartford, Connecticut on March 1, 2013), and I was disappointed to read that Baryshnikov does not dance in it. Wrong! He does dance, although not in the manner that a diehard ballet fan might hope to see. In a way, every gesture is a kind of dance, and Baryshnikov certainly brought his knowledge of dance to his role. Whether reaching across a desk at a faculty meeting, doing a few jumping jacks after getting out of bed in the morning, or even falling down a long flight of stairs, one could tell he had been trained in dance.
The most successful elements in “Man in a Case” involved the clever incorporation of audio and visual effects. The performance didn’t disguise its slick use of sound and video design (sound design by Tei Blow and video design by Jeff Larson, assisted by Keith Skretch), or even hide the designers themselves, it highlighted them. For example, to the audience’s great amusement, the sharp rhythmic clicks of Barbara’s heeled boots continued at one point after she had stopped walking. Also, a photo session with Belikov and Barbara resulted in large projections of the courting couple. The enlarged photos showed romantic backdrops that didn’t exist within Belikov’s cramped accommodations, where the photographer stood. Indeed, much of the show’s humor derived from playfulness with sound and video. The experimentation didn’t always strike the right note, however, and sometimes acted as a distraction. The music that played while the hunters talked at the beginning of the work made understanding what was said nearly impossible. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, the smart and witty addition of technology turned out well. The onstage appearances by the designers Blow and Skretch further enhanced the production.
Moreover, the costumes by Oana Botez brought smiles. I was charmed by the long red plaid coats, which were half countryside hunter, half Russian winter. The set by Peter Ksander (assisted by Andreea Mincic) worked well and provided an abundance of visual interest. Belikov’s tiny room was appropriately claustrophobic. The multiple locks, piles of books, and video monitors reflected his glum outlook, his isolation, and his paranoia. Finally, the lighting design by the inestimable Jennifer Tipton (assisted by Valentina Migoulia and Masha Tsimring), flawlessly showed off the characters and the mood swings, which is no surprise given Tipton’s experience lighting both dance and Chekhov.
As for the dancing, Parson’s choreography tended to be simple and spare. I admired the sequence toward the end of “Man in a Case,” in which Baryshnikov and Canale, lying on the floor, bent their bodies next to one another. Their image was projected upright so that the audience could see their movement. This magnified the sadness and ultimate separation of the pair, who had shared a confession of love before being separated forever.