Man in a Case
Big Dance Theater presents "Man in a Case," a staged adaption of two Anton Chekhov stories now running at Berkeley Rep.
Mikhail Baryshnikov stars as the titular Man, reclusive Greek teacher Belikov, who courts free-spirited bicyclist Barbara (fluid, statuesque Tymberly Canale) on the Annual Spring Walk in the Woods amidst a sparse set suggesting his apartment, outfitted with a multi-lock door, books and spying TV monitors; a dining-cum-sound effects table (complete with samovar); projection surfaces (for Polaroid-type stills and archival loops); and a staircase to nowhere.
The tech-heavy production is adapted and directed by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, who also plays Burkin with a warm and engaging narrator's voice. Ginger music director Chris Giarmo plays Ivan, as well as the accordion, and provides haunting a capella interstitials. Lazar and Giarmo also provide the frame for Chekhov's pair of 1898 stories ("Man" plus "About Love"), as plaid-wearing, turkey hunters telling tales, in "north Florida, known for southern hospitality."
Assistant director Aaron Mattocks is striking as Barbara's bald brother Kovalenko, who, dancing at a Name Day party, knows how to work Oana Botez's embroidered, Cossack-inspired man skirts.
Latvian-born 66-year-old Baryshnikov, who last performed at Berkeley Rep with "In Paris" in spring 2012, said, "I grew up reading Chekhov's stories and plays. I have wanted to explore a Chekhov story for the stage for some time... Both tales are about solitary men and their self-imposed restrictions. We know very little about the character in the first story except that .. he's kind of eccentric and conservative. But then something happens to him that is unexpected. 'About Love,' provides an arresting contrast to the first work. At their core both stories are about love. And I think it's a romantic show in many respects."
The soundscape, by Tei Blow, includes pop Bryan Ferry's "Slave to Love," Esquivel-flavored lounge music, and snippets from KQED "Forum" host Michael Krasny. The movement is precise, but minimal, with the majority occurring at the end, Baryshnikov and Canale posing prone for an overhead camera superimposed over railroad tracks.
My plus-one felt that perhaps the master dramatist chose to write these understated (well, Chekhovian) narratives as stories rather than plays because they're difficult to dramatize, and might be fighting for purchase underneath the technological overkill. Yet breathing the same air as the best ballet dancer in the world is a pleasure, watching his focus and nuance up close.
Man in a Case runs through Feb. 16 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA 94704. For tickets or information, call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org