Shakespeare Theatre has again welcomed into its home an ensemble of renowned master artists: Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the combined talents of the Big Dance Theater company. And Washington audiences are again treated to the delights of vanguard artists at work. Man in a Case, a multi-media avant garde production based on two short stories by Anton Chekhov, blends story, dance, projections, music, sound design, and a kind of rural Russian radio-documentary/direct address that charms as well as informs.
…a quiet excellence of form and content
Lovers of conceptual dance, for whom the moving of form through space in a surround of sound resonates, will relish the precision and intentionality of each element of this layered performance. It is a visual and auditory experience—as theatre is of course—but Man in a Case brings a mindfulness of interdisciplinary composition to high ground.
The design elements encompass this minuteness of observation. Video Designer Jeff Larson’s haunting projections—moving and static, pre-shot and spontaneous—present a variety of perspectives of focal characters. Snapshots are taken and writ large upon the backdrop, snippets of text chart the narrative, and, in an eloquent study in movement, Baryishnakov dons his character’s long coat while prone upon the stage. His graceful transition are captured from above and projected on the protean screen behind. This innovative prone/projection technique is repeated within the second story as Baryshnikov and actress Tymberly Canale tenderly enact a sequence of tableaux that encapsulate love sought and lost.
Narrated with verve and contemporatized humor by Jess Barbagallo and Chris Giarmo, who portray the two story-telling hunters of Chekhov’s original work, the production features two Chekhovian tales. The first story tells of Belikov, a repressed teacher of Greek in a remote Russian town whose obsession with order has permeated the psyches and daily practice of all around him. His colleagues fear him and, to their dismay, find themselves bending over backwards to accommodate his obsession with order. Played with subtlety and grace by Baryshnikov, we see this prim and heartbreakingly lonely man exact his rituals of mundanity in his tiny, container-like, one-room apartment. He is indeed a “man in a case.” Belikov locks and unlocks his tower of locks, he places his right glove and left in their separate cases, removes his ever-present galoshes, reclines stiffly in his Murphy-bed, and draws down its shade, encased, as it is, for the night’s slumber.
Into Belikov’s world of repetition comes Barbara, the sister of a new teacher colleague, a spirited, beautiful young woman charmingly played by Tymberly Canale. She laughs and flirts and dances, and for a moment Belikov is smitten; he beams and considers marriage. His colleagues collectively hold their breath; but, in an antiquated rendition of social shaming brilliantly reminiscent of the cruelties of today’s social media, someone circulates a vulgar cartoon of his infatuation. Belikov is humiliated beyond endurance, and he retreats in tragedy.
Interestingly, the way this story examined repetition, as the organizing principle of a life, brought to mind the current Van Gogh exhibition at DC’s Phillips Collection—entitled “Repetitions”—which brings together dozens of the master painter’s explorations of the place and form and personages of daily life. Indeed, one envisions Belikov’s Spartan room as a dark, bookish Russian variation on Van Gogh’s iconic bedroom at Arles.
The other story, “About Love,” tells of a man—also delicately played by Baryshnikov—who falls in love with a married woman, the wife of a close friend, again played by the coquettish Canale. Their romance, however, is doomed when she chooses husband and family over lover, and they part ways.