WASHINGTON, December 14, 2013 – “Man in a Case,” currently being performed at the Lansburgh Theatre, marks Mikhail Baryshnikov’s first appearance on the Shakespeare Theatre Company stage. Known worldwide for his virtuosic dancing since coming to the West, he broke the mold in classical ballet and forayed into American modern dance, film and stage after defecting from Russia.
“Man in a Case” is a terrific example of what is happening in theatre all around the world right now, integrating performance, spoken word and mixed media,” stated STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn. “I am a great admirer of Mikhail Baryshnikov and honored to have him grace the Lansburgh stage.”
Maybe it was having to endure the aftermath of drenching rain and a gloomy umbrella laden evening, but this Big Dance Company avant-garde adaptation by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar of two short stories by Anton Chekhov left this reviewer cold.
The Lansburgh stage is set in a strange Prairie Home Companion format creating the space in which the two tales are told by the device of a late night chat between a pair of hunters. Worse, the entire enterprise is conducted without any of the warmth or humor of that successful, Garrison Keillor-style variety show approach in spite of a busily distracting multi-media backdrop that was meant to liven things up.
The hunters begin by introducing Belikov (Mikhail Baryshnikov), a dour, repressed professor of Greek, an unsociable man whose mannerisms create the impression he is “encased” within himself—hence this drama’s title. Likewise, his connection with an extroverted woman named Barbara, who is in many ways his polar opposite, is similarly inhibited.
After this encounter, the production then shifts to the contrasting second Chekov short story “About Love,” in which the protagonist gives up his love for a married woman. The transition between the two stories is unfortunately less than seamless.
Creating a bridge between our time and that depicted in these 19th-century alternating love stories, “Man in a Case” draws imagery from surveillance footage as well as haunting dance pieces projected from stage to screen.
The only breath of fresh air in this shadowy 70-minute one act production is provided by Tymberly Canale, who plays the flirtatious role of Barbara, Belikov’s ultra-seductive love interest.
A dancer and choreographer by trade, Canale’s extremely open characterization of Barbara, right down to her soft pastel outfits, is such a jarring contrast to the dark, inward-looking male cast members that she easily achieves the first story’s objective—completely unsettling Baryshnikov’s rigid, unimaginative professor Belikov who continues to live in his self-made “case” as if he were strapped permanently into a straightjacket.
The ensemble cast also includes frequent Big Dance Theater collaborators Jess Barbagallo as Burkin, and Chris Giarmo as Ivan, the chatty and offbeat hunters who serve as our guides. Aaron Mattocks rounds out the cast as Kovelenko, Barbara’s mean spirited and over protective brother.
Because this multi-media work was put together in collaboration with Big Dance Theater, in the back of my mind I expected Baryshnikov to break out the old soft shoe at some point and grace the audience with a few dance moves. But with the exception of his very athletic and climactic two story fall from grace that ends the first story, what he displayed instead was a patchwork of group tableaux and a strange break dance duet with the Tymberly Canale’s second character, the married woman Baryshnikov’s landowner character longs for.
Annie-B Parson co-founded the Obie and “Bessie” Award-winning Big Dance Theater in 1991, and has created over 20 works that have toured internationally. Yet in spite of this impressive success, this attempt by she and Paul Lazar to bring their distinctive aesthetic to “Man in a Case” by combining dance, theatre, video and fourth-wall-breaking storytelling doesn’t really get off the ground in spite of Baryshnikov’s considerable star power.
In this case the experiment fails, and this reviewer gives “Man in a Case” a single star on a scale of four based on the curiosity factor that will lead many to see the show on the basis of Baryshnikov’s star power alone.
Rating: * (One out of four stars)
“Man in a Case” runs from December 5th through the 22, 2013 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street, NW.
Tickets are priced from $45-105.
To purchase tickets or to learn more, patrons can call the box office at 202.547.1122 or visit ShakespeareTheatre.org.
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