Monday, March 10, 2014

Chekhov and Baryshnikov: Man in a Case

Man in a Case, featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov (center)

At the end of Chekhov’s short story “About Love,” the narrator Alehin reveals that only in the last moments he spent with the married woman with whom he had fallen in love – when he kissed her for the first time before she traveled away from him forever – did he understand that “when you love you must either, in your reasonings about that love, start from what is highest, from what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their accepted meaning, or you must not reason at all.” Man in a Case by the Big Dance Theater, which has been traveling around the east coast and played a handful of Boston performances in the Arts Emerson series, dramatizes “About Love” and “The Man in a Case,” two of the Chekhov tales from 1898 that begin as conversations between the veterinarian Ivan Ivanovitch and the schoolmaster Burkin, who are hunting companions. And I think it’s that comment of Alehin’s that links them. The title story focuses on Belikov, a schoolteacher whose cautious disapproval of anything with the mere whiff of impropriety has the effect of making everyone around him feel constrained. Improbably, he becomes enamored of a young woman, but he can’t rise above either his prejudices or his pride. Belikov’s story, which is comic and tragic by turns – the Chekhovian balance – ends when, after he’s scandalized to observe his beloved on a bicycle and gets into an argument with her brother over her, he’s thrown down the stairs and dies as a result of his injuries, or perhaps of some combination of shame and heartbreak. He’s “the man in the case” who has sealed himself off from humanity; he seems to break out of it when he falls in love but he can’t allow that love to alter his nature. It’s quite a strange story (and, like “About Love,” a beautiful one).

The two parts of Man in a Case are built around Mikhail Baryshnikov, who plays Belikov in the first and Alehin in the second, and although I had mixed feelings about the show overall, I found him magnetic. Wrapped in an ankle-length overcoat pulled so snugly over him that it seems like a layer of his skin, bespectacled and carrying a long cylindrical case over his left shoulder that stiffens his bearing like a crutch, his Belikov is an emblem of repressed emotions. Baryshnikov hasn’t danced straight ballet in years, but the high points of his performance are like the kind of mime that bridges the narrative gap in the great nineteenth-century story ballets, and his physical expressiveness is, as it always has been, staggering: tautly economical, simultaneously romantic and modernist. A gesture offered with one hand outstretched across a table conveys the character’s dismay or disgruntlement so sharply that you instantly believe the claim of the narrator, his fellow teacher and neighbor Burkin (Paul Lazar), that “under the influence of people like Belikov we have got in the way of being afraid of everything in our town for the last ten or fifteen years.” And the high point of the second part of the evening, based on “About Love,” is an expressionistic dance of unspoken love between Baryshnikov’s Alehin and the married lady (Tymberly Canale).

Tymberly Canale and Mikhail Baryshnikov
The production is billed as dance, choreographed by Annie-B Parson, though the texts of the two stories, adapted by Parson and Lazar, are pretty much complete, and it contains dramatic scenes, like the fight between Belikov and Kovalenko (Aaron Mattocks). (Parson and Lazar have appended a short exchange from the second act of Three Sisters.) There is much to admire in the staging, and in the way the video designer, Jeff Larson, has infiltrated every corner of Peter Ksander’s set, projecting onto not only screens built into it but even curtains and tablecloths. The video footage copies the live action, but from different angles and sometimes out of sync with it, and the staggered rhythms, which are mor or less the visual equivalent of a round, abstract the narrative. This is particularly effective during Baryshnikov’s dance with Canale, during some of which they’re on their backs or bellies on the stage floor. The set includes a staircase above the curtained backdrop that is employed just once, for the quarrel between the two men, when Belikov tumbles down the steps under strobe lighting. (The masterful Jennifer Tipton designed the lights.)

My problem with the 75-minute show, as often with experimental theatre, is that the acting of the ensemble isn’t good enough. Aside from Baryshnikov, I didn’t care much for any of the actors; I liked Canale only when she danced. It’s not entirely their faults. Parson has directed Lazar and Chris Giarmo (as Ivan Ivanovitch) to speak their lines into microphones as if they were performing a radio play, and there’s some silliness involving sound effects that carries through that idea. In those moments, you get a sort of Prairie Home Companion treatment of the stories, and though it’s fashionable in a lot of modern versions of Chekhov, especially by the Russians and the Brits, to present his plays as vaudevilles – presumably a reaction against generations of productions that ignored his insistence that he wrote comedies rather than dramas – that approach removes just about everything I treasure about him. So every time Man in a Case went into radio-play mode I gritted my teeth and waited for Parson and the actors to move on to something else – like Baryshnikov dancing.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment