'Man in a Case' Weaves Strange Spell
Mikhail Baryshnikov Embodies Chekhov Characters at Hartford Stage World Premiere
First impressions: Watching Mikhail Baryshnikov on stage performing in a tale about the only man -- a strange, repressed and fearful Greek teacher -- in a rural Russian village who can't dance may be frustrating for some audiences. But this legendary artist still moves like a dream, which is an apt metaphor for this woozy, sly and theatrically adventuresome kind of story telling.
Two tales by Anton Chekhov center on men limited in their abilities to break free from the bonds of convention. That can't be said about the post-modern production adapted and directed by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar and their New York-based Big Dance Theater. They play with evocative storytelling tools, using movement, video, projections, photography, sound and music. Those willing to let go of convention will be entranced in a quiet spell that honors Chekhov's simple and small tales of sweet/not-so-sweet absurdities of life, love and existence.
Uh-oh. It's not like Hartford Stage's "Pearls for Pigs," is it? Give that old carp a rest. Can't a world class theater be allowed to try something different once every 16 years?
Sensitive are we? A little. Listen, theatergoers should just relax, let go of expectations and enter the world of a different kind of theater? The piece is presented as a radio show, like one of Ira Glass' moody "This American Life" episodes. Think of it as "This Russian Life," circa 1898. Helping to creating an imaginative dreamscape is Jennifer Tipton's mesmerizing lighting and and sensurround soundscape by Tei Blow.
The show begins with two flannel-wearing hunters who start talking turkey -- literally about how to hunt turkey -- when one recalls a man of their village, Belikov (Baryshnikov), a isolated, paranoid and rules-obsessed man who was living in a virtual shell.
A series of short vignettes establish his particular way of life and the reaction of his colleagues and townspeople: at school, at home, in social situations — if you can call it that. He sits nearly silently at a colleague's home making everyone feel uncomfortable.
One day a vivacious Ukranian woman comes to town, "a regular sugarplum" who loves to dance, laugh and who is into Carly Simon.
Say what? Carly Simon/Ukranian folk ditties: tomato/tomahto. It's one of many playfully ridiculous theatrical ideas that takes one culture's details and relates them to another.
Some people can't cope with change and it ends badly for Belikov -- but not without giving something for the townspeople to think about for years to come.
And the second story? Well before that begins, something surprising happens.
Which is? In the spirit of the production where the storytelling is off-hand, casual and puckish, a crew member puts on a piece of music just as Baryhnikov begins the second tale. He stops, looks at the crew member and then, succumbing to the music, performs a brief, lovely dance, before turning back to the narrative. It's as if to say, "I know you all want to see me dance, so here's a bit, and now can we go back to our story?"
Which is...? "About Love," a much shorter, romantic and simply-told tale with Baryshnikov — his face is a finely etched Chekhovian mask, world-weary, wry, fatalistic — cast as a man who falls deeply in love with another man's wife. But both man and woman fail to find the courage to pursue their bliss because of convention.
It's a more prose-driven piece whose staging, especially with its camera projections, offers a dramatic change in perspective that is lyrical, elegant and rueful. Such is life. Such is Chekhov, too.
Who will like it? The theatrically curious, adventuresome. Those who want to see Baryshnikov do anything.
Who won't? Those who only like their storytelling done in realistic, conventional ways
For the kids?: Hip teens -- make that very hip kids -- might actually find the mixed-media show pretty cool
Twitter review in 140 characters or less? Offbeat storytelling weaves a curious, challenging spell for post-modern audiences.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: On Tuesday night I saw the touring company of the Green Day rock opera musical "American Idiot" that was kinetic, raucous and thrilling. On Wednesday it was the world premiere of "Man in the Case," a meditative piece that also challenged the ways we tell stories on stage. There are traditional theatergoers who will dislike both shows but how lucky for Hartford audiences to see such inventive works that ask more from our artists and ourselves, in a sense asking us to break out of our own cases for a night.
The basics: The show runs through March 24 at the 50 Church St. theater. Running time is 80 minutes, with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; and a special performance at 6:30 p.m., March 13. Matinees are Sundays at 2 p.m. and select Wednesdays and Saturdays. Tickets are $36.50 to $116.50. Information at 860-527-5151 and www.hartfordstage.org.