Man in a Case

David Rosenberg

Just because something is presented on a stage doesn’t mean it’s a play. Point of fact: At Hartford Stage, “Man in a Case” is a lot of things, foremost a vehicle starring the great dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov who’s undoubtedly the chief reason for attending. (He does dance -- a bit.)

 

It’s also a compendium of bits and pieces from authors like Herman Melville, Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka, with touches of surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel. And, oh yes, since it’s based on two Anton Chekhov short stories, “Man in a Case” and “About Love,” the Russian writer is in there as well.

 

Out of all these influences, the Big Dance Theater team of Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar fashioned an unconventional happening, choreographed by Parson. If you’re looking for a linear work of characters in conflict, if you’re looking for a “play” in any traditional sense, look elsewhere.

 

Instead of dramatizing the tales, Parson and Lazar deconstruct them, illustrating these 19th-century pieces with an array of 21st-century technology: video, sound effects, lighting. In addition, they quite gleefully cast aside “show, not tell” by telling just about everything in narration lifted from the page.

 

The result is an evening as cold, shallow and intense as technology itself. Although vestiges of Chekhov’s critique of bureaucracy and provincialism are given short shrift, in their place is a narrow though assured portrait of Belikov (the Baryshnikov character), a teacher of Greek so remote and uptight that he frightens everyone.

 

It’s no surprise that he’s lonely, living a tightly wound existence akin to being forever closed up in a figurative case. Even his pull-down bed is curtained to further isolate him from his surroundings. Devoid of human contact -- his front door has seven locks -- his life becomes “unnecessary and absurd.”

 

In the second story, “About Love,” Baryshnikov plays a man in love with a married woman. Their aborted romance is so traumatic that her doctor orders her to chuck it all and exile herself to the Crimea.

 

Before they part, the man and woman, in the persons of Baryshnikov and Tymberly Canale, execute sensuous, stylized movements, lying next to each other on the floor. Their couplings of love and depression are as imagistic and mysterious as anything in the 80-minute, intermissionless evening.

 

Baryshnikov gracefully pulls in upon himself, portraying men whose humdrum existences are coverups for unleashed passion. You can feel the coiled springs of someone aching to break out. Canale is joyous as desirable women in both tales, while a three-person supporting cast acts as stage managers and technicians.

 

All cards are on the table: we see the inner workings of the production from running sound effects to taking and projecting photos. As an exercise, “The Man in a Case” is technically proficient. That is also its drawback.

 

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