note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
Mikhail Baryshnikov Production’s, “Man in a Case,” is a strangely stunning, 75-minute, multimedia event that keeps audiences’ attention rapt, but not because of its visual and auditory assault.
Watching Baryshnikov’s actions, acting, and movements is exciting. In last week’s brief run of ArtsEmerson:The World on Stage’s presentation of Anton Chekhov’s adapted 19th century short stories, “Man in a Case,” (considered Chekhov’s most famous) and “About Love,” Baryshnikov and Co. flawlessly fuse the tales together. These two stories are part of Chekhov’s trilogy, which includes not-included short story “Gooseberries”. Choreographer Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar (of internationally renowned Big Dance Theater) adapted and directed the performance, in which Lazar also portrays storyteller-schoolmaster Burkin.
The actors’ sparse dialogue and narration, brief traditional dance scenes and occasional music are super-enhanced by a barrage of Tei Blow’s shattering sounds, Jennifer Tipton’s strobe and subtle lighting, and Jeff Larson’s ubiquitous videos,beaming simultaneously, on Peter Ksander’s minimalist divided set. Video images loom large and small on white background screens, a tablecloth, a narrow white door, small desk, and five on-stage simulated TV monitor screens.
Chris Giarmo, (veterinary surgeon-storyteller Ivan Ivanovitch), lends fine musical direction to this colorful, multi-talented troupe, but it’s Baryshnikov who’s hypnotic. In “Man in a Case,” his body language and graceful, balletic movement as feared Greek master Belikov betray his overtly stiff, formal, rigid, formidable presence to villagers, administrators, and school staff. His dark glasses, long coat, galoshes, small-brimmed hat, and the umbrella he carries, oblivious to weather, are indicative of his unyielding nature. He is, indeed, a man in a box.
On occasion, Belikov visits his colleagues at their homes, unannounced, sits among them silently, then leaves, as quietly as he came, leaving his hosts feeling intimidated.
As hunters sit around, animatedly discussing turkey calls and shoots, they, too, become silent when Belikov enters. Ironically, it’s Belikov who’s terrified of them - and life. He locks seven deadbolts to feel safe within his room. In bed, he incubates himself in a box-like, fully drawn opaque curtain. At a school Name-day party, Belikov is afraid to kick up his heels,dance, and fall in love with new teacher-Ukrainian free spirit, Barbara (Tymberly Canale). When his colleagues encourage Belikov to marry her, he replies, “Marriage is a serious step.” He has to think about it. The idea of being with another person depresses him.
Barbara’s loud giggles and laughter are enchanting, yet effrontery to him. He’s appalled by her riding a bicycle around town. Ladies don’t do that, he says. And he’s even more horrified by her big, blustery brother-new geography-history teacher, Kovalenko’s (Aaron Mattocks) outrageous comments and joie de vivre. In turn, Kovalenko despises Belikov, calling him Judas and The Spider. He rejects Belikov’s rigidity and thinks the villagers are glum, colorless, suppressed. In a vivid, dramatic scene, Belikov slowly ascends a long, staircase to warn Kovalenko he should behave more respectfully. Strobe lights swirl ominously to throbbing beats as the enraged Kovalenko pushes him away, sending Belikov tumbling downstairs.
Belikov’s fate worsens. To his utter humiliation, somebody has blanketed the village with suggestive caricatures of Belikov and a lady. Sinking into withdrawal and deep depression, Belikov fails to show up for school for a month and is discovered dead in bed. But nobody’s grieving. Standing in pouring rain, they rejoice that he’s gone.
The scene fluidly shifts to “About Love,” an allegorical tale starring Baryshnikov and Canale as two lovers in a doomed relationship, because she’s married with children. Although they’re in love, he must let her go. Baryshnikov and Canale’s facial expressions,interpretive moves and dance say it all, eloquently, matching Chekhov’s words.