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Shakespeare Theatre Company Man in a Case

By • Dec 8th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Man in a Case
Shakespeare Theatre Company: (Info) (Web)
Lansburgh Theatre, Washington DC
Through December 22nd
85 minutes, without intermission
$45-$105 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed December 5th, 2013

Shakespeare Theatre Company continues its special Presentation Series of “bold, thought-provoking works from around the world” with a short-run production of Man in a Case. It is a Holiday gift for those theater devotees interested in the experimental and avant-garde as well as for those who once swooned over a young dancer named Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Man in a Case is a 21st Century theatrical adaptation using present day artistic tools to bring a new texture to Anton Chekhov late 19th Century literary works about estrangement from love. The works are two short stories (“Man in a Case” and “About Love”) that focus on those so fearful of love they are “encased” and shut-down into emotionless lives.

Adapted and directed by the Obie award-winning team, Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar/Big Dance Theatre Man in a Case, is repositioned into the here-and-now with a wide array of moody video, multiple projections, unexpected pop music and emotion-inducing movements that push the Chekhov narrative forward.

The production begins before the audience takes their seats. Most of the actors are already in place doing mundane things in a barn-like setting. Two plaid shirted hunters (Jess Barbagallo and Chris Giarmo) chat about their exploits hunting turkeys. From there the discussion veers off as the hunters introduce the characters and stories that comprise the Man in a Case evening.

The first is Man in a Case in which the central character is the glum, full of despair teacher named Belikov (Mikhail Baryshnikov, a sharp-edged, world-weary man wrapped tight in a long black frock coat). Belikov is pushed into an attraction to the new “sugarplum” in town, Barbara (effervescently extroverted, expressively physical Tymberly Canale). She attempts to brighten Belikov’s life through teasing, dancing and even bicycle-riding. Belikov will have none of it; even getting into a furious verbal and physical fight with Barbara’s brother (Aaron Mattocks). Ultimately hiding away in his bedroom cave encasing himself in his bed to be consumed by his own private nightmares. There are no Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” ghosts to save Belikov. And life goes on.

The second tale is a bittersweet About Love. Here the focus is on another kind of unconsummated love. The central male character is an unnamed farmer played by the hypnotically gentle voiced Baryshnikov (both live and recorded) who moves about the stage with a smooth grace. He meets a beautiful, intriguing woman. His heart soars, smitten with her. Alas, she (Canales as a sad, married woman moving in halting steps and using sideward glances) is encased in a loveless marriage. Unable and unwilling to step into a new life together damage is done. There is a heartbreaking sequence where their devotion to each other is made visually apparent with movement and dance. It brought a total attentive hush from the audience

Music is a vital pointer in the production, whether as background or in the foreground. Pop songs from the late 1960s are used but with a twist. There are versions sung in Russian such as The Turtles “So Happy Together” and the classic “House of the Rising Sun,” as well as an instrumental version of The Doors “The End” and a credited Carly Simon with her “Coming Around Again.” There are also a jazz-like riff, folk music for a vibrant group circle dance and an eerie modernist piece entitled “Opus 17a” composed by Hanne Darboven.

The 1970’s poem “High Windows” by Philip Larkin, that mid 20th century English poet of midlife disappointments, brings a palpable and purposeful discomfort on stage when read. The very earthy Larkin language is so different from that of Chekhov writing.

There are two choreographed sequences that deserve special mention. One involves Baryshnikov’s wondrous ability to appear effortless as he careens down what looks like well over 20 feet of darkly lit metal steps at the very rear of the stage set after an argument. The other is at the end of the evening. It is a lovely, loving pas de deux sequence (choreographed by Annie-B Parson) between Baryshnikov and Canale. They move smoothly while on the floor, as if on a bed. They entwine hands and fingers expressing their profound, yet unrequited devotion for each other. There is a simultaneous projected video of the same two that is synchronized as a move-for-move with the live action. The video provides a striking perspective like leaning over a balcony railing, looking down.

Critical parts of the unfolding Chekhov narrative are made more dramatic with well-conceived, well-executed multi-media. The multi-media includes surveillance-like jumpy, grainy video footage shown on numerous monitors, dada-like moving projected images of unsuccessfully cutting meat, a trance-like black and white loop of school children walking up stairs over and over and a cute, live on-stage amplified sound of water being poured into a glass.

What could have been a dense, slowly unfolding, impenetrable melodramatic, celebrity star-turn production or a “high art” performance piece done in a cloistered, academic setting, is neither. If you are adventurous and up for the unusual, Man in a Case might be just for you. Or perhaps a special Christmas present for theater maven you know. It most definitely an anti A Christmas Carol for this December.

Finally, a mention of a special souvenir provided by Baryshnikov that will bring back memories to those that do remember him as a dancer from their own youthful days. There is a seamless moment connecting to the two staged stories when Baryshnikov sports a wide, bright smile and says directly to the audience, “You asked for it.” He dances as smoothly and gracefully as one could ever want. Nice, very nice.

Would you want to see Man in a Case without Baryshnikov? Certainly that is a fair key question. I leave that to you to answer. But if you desire something different this Holiday season, then dip your toes into this. It isn’t here long.

Note: Man in a Case is produced by Baryshnikov Productions in association with ArKtype/Thomas O. Kriegsmann, commissioned and premiered by Hartford Stage Company, Hartford, CT in March, 2013.

Photo Gallery

Tymberly Canale Mikhail Baryshnikov
Tymberly Canale
Mikhail Baryshnikov
Mikhail Baryshnikov Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tymberly Canale and Aaron Mattocks
Mikhail Baryshnikov
Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tymberly Canale and Aaron Mattocks
Mikhail Baryshnikov
Mikhail Baryshnikov

Photos by T. Charles Erickson

The Cast

  • Belikov: Mikhail Baryshnikov
  • Burkin: Jess Barbagallo
  • Barbara: Tymberly Canale
  • Ivan: Chris Giarmo
  • Kavalenko: Aaron Mattocks
  • Additional Onstage Appearance by Tel Blow and Keith Skretch

Creative Team

  • Director and Choreographer: Annie-B Parson
  • Director: Paul Lazar
  • Set Designer: Pater Ksander
  • Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
  • Sound Designer: Tei Blow
  • Costume Designer: Oana Botez
  • Video Designer: Jeff Larson
  • Associate Video Designer: Keith Skretch
  • Music Designer: Chris Giarmo
  • Production Stage Manager: Brendan Regimbal

Disclaimer: Shakespeare Theatre Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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