Theater
Review
"Man in a Case"

Adapted from two short stories by Anton Chekhov
Adapted and directed by: Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar / Big Dance Theater
Choreographed by: Annie-B Parson
Featuring: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tymberly Canale, Paul Lazar, Chris Giarmo, Aaron Mattocks, Tei Blow, Jeff Larson
When: January 25 through February 16, 2014
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, California
Tickets: $45-125 (subject to change; discounts available); call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org

man in a case
T Charles Erickson photo
Mikhail Baryshnikov stars as Belikov, an uptight Greek teacher in "Man in a Case," an innovative take on two of Anton Chekhov’s 1898 short stories, "Man in a Case" and "About Love," at Berkeley Rep, January 25-February 16, 2014.
Finding the beauty
in lovely misery
Berkeley Rep
offers Big Dance Company's 'Man in a Case'
January 31, 2014

The start time for "Man in a Case" at Berkeley Rep seemed a little ragged on opening night.

Audience members, looking for their seats in the Roda Theatre, naturally glance at the stage, which has a stack of mysterious stuff (old TV sets, books, whatever) at one side, a small, shapeless pile center stage, and a few guys sitting around a table at the other side.

Could be anywhere in Berkeley. A couple of guys tapping away at laptops, three others just chatting. One of those deals where privileged audience members get to sit on stage? Some kind of café thing? Laggard stage hands?

Who knows? Find your seats, sit down, get slightly irritated by the stragglers who are holding up the play.

But then the light dawns: One of those guys sitting at the table, his back to us, is Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Eventually, two of the other guys, both in plaid shirts, ala hunting or Seattle grunge, start talking into big microphones on the table. They seem to be radio hosts, and the topic is hunting turkeys.

Then Baryshnikov comes around behind them, and tells a story about when he hunted turkeys once. And for some reason, the two radio guys are scared, and a slight frisson of fear is broadcast to the audience.

Baryshnikov goes to center stage and lays down on the shapeless pile. And writhes his way into a top coat, his dancer's body in fine muscular shape at age 66, and by the time he stands, the beautiful but severe brocaded coat tight against him, a pork-pie hat on his head and dark glasses covering his eyes, he has not been reborn from the depths of the Roda stage, but has metamorphosized into something else, something damaged, as we will come to see.

He has become Belikov.

Nobody likes Belikov. Everyone is afraid of him. A teacher of Greek, he is too severe, too dangerous, because he is all too willing to pass judgment on others, and to inform on his neighbors. If he enters a room, everyone shuts up. Nobody sips tea unless he does first. They breathe sighs of relief when he leaves.

Belikov is poetry about certain Russian souls, in this story by Anton Chekov. Belikov embraces the oppression of the regime and society, and is its agent, but he is also being eaten alive by it. His neighbors are only oppressed when he is with them; when he's gone, they are free and happy. But he never escapes; he carries his oppression with him at all times.

Baryshnikov's performance at Belikov is impressive. We see that Belikov wears emotional oppression and personal depression like that overcoat. His movement on leaving the outside world to enter his tiny living space is an act of terrible beauty. He is a man who terrifies others, but who is himself even more terrified.

Tymberly Canale
Brad Harris photo
Tymberly Canale performs in "Man in a Case" at Berkeley Rep.

"Did you know that Belikov almost got married once?" one of the radio hunters asks, and we are transported into the story of a laughing, cheery woman who captures what little emotion Belikov allows himself. But then the very idea of Belikov having a woman leads to a small scandal, which destroys him. Everything must be oppressed. No light of love allowed.

The choreography of the end of this first of two tales is subtle but beautiful, filled with bits of irony and imagery. I don't want to recount the details, because the delight of understanding them when performed should be left to those who see this show.

The second of two Chekov stories in this impressive, 75-minute performance is "About Love," and it is another sad poem, beautifully told. A man who had been a college student decides to return to his father's farm until he can pay back what it cost his family to send him to school. He meets another farmer, is a guest at the farmer's home, and meets the farmer's wife.

The bachelor and the married woman fall in love, but both are very restrained and proper. Eventually, they separate forever, but continue to dream of each other.

There is narrative dialogue — and song — but the deeper story comes to us via movement and dance. Baryshnikov and Tymberly Canale as the wife, sitting in chairs, their arms dancing on the tabletop, entwining and caressing, their faces holding outward impartiality as their limbs express their desire. On the floor, sleeping, dreaming of each other.

This is a tale told not just in dialogue and narration, but in dance, song and visual imagery. Video screens are used not just to impart information, but to project mood and emotion. Almost everything — every prop, every movement — seems to have some thing to tell us, some poetic purpose.

A friend thought this play too lugubrious. Another thought it too avant garde. I found it sad tales, beautifully told.

Canale is impressive, projecting slim young silly girl in one role, and stolid farm wife in the other, and moving beautifully on stage when that is what the story demands. Some of what she does is pre-recorded — foley footsteps and laughter — and when those sounds are delivered to the audience while her back is turned, it somehow increases the feeling of paranoia that is a part of "Man in a Case."

Chris Giarmo
Katie Brook photo
Chris Giarmo performs in "Man in a Case" at Berkeley Rep, January 25-February 16, 2014.

Chris Giarmo is impressive as a singer. His acting — as one of the guys in plaid shirts — is good, but his singing is extraordinary. There are a number of tunes through the show, sounding vaguely Russian, I guess, and they demand an extended vocal range, which Giarmo delivers beautifully. Also, he plays accordian.

The other guys in the cast, who spend most of the show sitting at that long table, all have stuff to do. Aaron Mattocks is the other hunter/radio host/villager in plaid shirt, who has dialogue, and also plays tambourine. Tei Blow plays guitar, kick drum and synthesizer, and runs the sound from one of those laptops we've seen him tapping away at. Video designer Jeff Larson is also tapping on a laptop, running the show's various video apparitions (everything from old TVs in Belikov's little room to a hanging tablecloth).

Peter Ksander's set design is mostly successful, and a key part of the visual storytelling of this production, although his placement of Belikov's door was irritating to audience members at stage left, because it blocked the view of some of the downstage video projections.

"Man in a Case" is the beautifully told brainchild of co-directors Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, the co-founders of Big Dance Theater. It's an excellent bit of theater poesy. See it while you can.

Man in a Case
T Charles Erickson photo
Tymberly Canale, left, and Mikhail Baryshnikov perform a scene from "About Love," a story about a man who meets and falls in love with a married woman, part of "Man in a Case" at Berkeley Rep, January 25-February 16, 2014.


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