Man in a Case -- Way Outside the Box

By Amy J. Barry

If you’re under the assumption when you take your seats for the premiere of “Man in a Case” at Hartford Stage that you will see two Anton Chekhov short stories adapted as short plays or scenes, graced by the dance moves of the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov -- who plays the main character in both stories -- well, that simply isn’t the case.

 

You’ll either be pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised, depending on whether you are a traditionalist when it comes to your classics -- or are very open-minded and enjoy a production that takes you way outside the box.

 

Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar of Big Dance Theater direct and Parson choreographs the avant-garde, multi-media assemblage piece, which personally left me baffled and distracted by the onslaught of special effects and mediums.

 

Projections of instructional hunting videos, Utube clips, and super titles are blended with dialogue, live and taped narrative, and live and recorded music in every genre-from Russian folk music to ‘30s jazz to ‘80s Carly Simon. A behind-the-scenes look at the actual making of the piece in which designers and technicians intrude is also part of the mix. The dance -- although lovely—is a small piece of the puzzle laid out in one jam-packed one-hour and 15-minute act.

 

A pair of hunters (Jess Barbagallo and Chris Giarmo) talk turkey and tell the first story about the "Man in a Case." Baryshnikov is featured as Belikov, an oddball introverted, risk-adverse professor. Belikov realizes he probably should marry, and is tempted to tie the knot with the colorful, extroverted Barbara (Tymberly Canale), but is ultimately overwhelmed by her intense personality.

 

Surveillance cameras appear all over his tiny apartment -- apparently to reflect his paranoia -- but detract from the story as one finds oneself more interested in what’s going on in the pictures on the screens than the storyline.

 

The second story, “About Love,” is shorter and Parson admits in an interview in the program that it was added mainly because “Man in a Case” wasn’t long enough for a full production.

 

In this downbeat story, Baryshnikov plays a man who is in love with a married woman (also played by Canale) -- neither act on their feelings, and she ends up so depressed her doctor orders her to leave her family and travel to the Crimea (Ukrainian peninsula) to rest and recover.

 

Bringing together these two Chekhov stories adds an interesting dimension to the overall work. They are very different -- “Man in a Case” is narrated through various characters’ points of view and “About Love” is more personal, the story told by the main character. They are also similar. Both are about unrequited love and the characters’ tragic inability to live life fully and passionately. They are trapped in cases of their own making, and more broadly, there are references to “the cases” people are stuck in that live in small, insular towns where everyone knows everyone’s business.

 

Several poignant vignettes stand-out from the crowd, such as Belikov’s funeral in which the talented cast -- all performers with Big Dance Theater -- open their umbrellas against a projected black-and-white backdrop of shadows moving across the moon and softly blurred trees and sing in gorgeous harmony.

 

It is exactly the quiet subtlety of this scene that leaves something to the imagination -- like a carefully woven short story -- that is more compelling, at least to this reviewer, than the overwrought busy-ness of much of this production.

 

“Man in a Case” is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., downtown Hartford, through March 24. For tickets and performance schedule, visit www.hartfordstage.com or call 860-525-5601.

 

This review appears in Shore Publishing weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.

 

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